Ambitious plan to regulate chemicals running behind schedule

Some environmentalists are grumbling after the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) missed a deadline to deliver recommendations to better protect citizens from toxic chemicals.

DTSC was scheduled to deliver the recommendations to their parent agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal-EPA) on July 1 as part of the Schwarzenegger administration's potentially-groundbreaking Green Chemistry Initiative. Based largely on a program in the European Union, the initiative is designed to document the health effects and known alternatives for thousands of chemicals used in consumer products and industry.

That deadline passed without the DTSC delivering the recommendations for a framework to regulate chemicals in California. In fact, DTSC has not even delivered the draft recommendations that were due on May 15. This has some environmentalists worried.
"A number of stakeholders have been involved with this for the past year and a half, and we're getting anxious," said Gretchen Lee, legislative director with the Breast Cancer Fund.

Shell Culp, deputy director for public affairs at DTSC, said the delay was due to a late report coming from the initiative's Scientific Advisory Panel. This 21-member group-which includes scientists, environmentalists and industry representatives-was about six weeks late with their report "Green Chemistry Options for California." Their 182-page report came out on May 28. Culp said the DTSC would now skip the draft phase and deliver their recommendations by the end of the month.

"That was our internal date we were trying to hit," Culp said. "There wasn't any statutory requirement. The issues are pretty complex, and our scientific advisory panel tool a little longer to grapple with them than we expected. We're not bowing to any industry pressure."

But Dan Jacobson, legislative director with Environment California, said the DTSC hadn't told people in the environmental community why the recommendations were late or when they would actually come out. While they were pleased by some of the administration's actions-particularly when Schwarzenegger signed AB 1108, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma's "toxic toys" legislation-he said he was also concerned that there wouldn't be a draft version environmentalists could comment on.

"We're kind of scared," Jacobson said. "While we're optimistic about the governor's environmental record, you always want to look under the hood and kick the tires before you buy the car."

Disagreements between environmentalists and industry representatives on the panel did help cause the delay, according to one panel member, University of California at Berkeley professor Mike Wilson. In fact, Wilson said, the only way they did conclude the process was by agreeing to disagree. After numerous drafts, conference calls and three days of in-person meetings dating back to last year, the body came up with a report that warns "while there was substantial agreement on many of the options developed by the subcommittees, the Science Advisory Panel did not attempt to reach consensus."

"Just trying to get a committee of strongly opinionated individuals to come up with a common document was a real challenge," Wilson said.

While these recommendations will not have the effect of banning or allowing any particular chemical, they will have a huge effect on how easy it will be to ban any given substance. For instance, the chemical industry has been very concerned that the criteria for whether a chemical is safe or not be based on how likely people are to be exposed in real-world situations.

"You could probably claim any sort of chemical is hazardous," said Tim Shestek, state public affairs director for the American Chemistry Council. "You have to look at how a chemical is used, at potential pathways for exposure."

Shestek added that the industry had concerns over rules that would require companies to release trade secrets. But he said the industry doesn't oppose the initiative having a "regulatory hammer" because it may help them avoid messy chemical-by-chemical fights in the legislature. He said the several legislators would likely introduce bans next session if they were not satisfied with the framework DTSC and Cal-EPA come up with.

A year ago, Capitol Weekly wrote about three Bay Area Democratic legislators who had received oppose letters on chemical ban bills they were carrying from Cal-EPA or affiliated agencies. The letters to Senator Joe Simitian (D, Palo Alto) and Assembly members Sally Lieber (Mountain View) and Mark Leno (D, San Francisco) all cited the Green Chemistry Initiative as a reason for not pursuing chemical-specific bans this session.

The Breast Cancer Fund's Lee said environmentalist groups have pushed hard to compel chemical manufacturers to share data about their products. They want manufacturers to have to prove their chemicals are safe, rather than the state having to spend "millions of dollars" to show that they're not. She added that the environmental community remains concerned that the industry is trying to use the initiative to prevent further chemical bans.

"Whenever a comprehensive approach is brought forward, either through Legislature or the Green Chemistry Initiative, they oppose that as well," Lee said. "The system that exists now favors them, and they have no incentive to change it."

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