Democrats plan on introducing chemical bills

A pair of Democratic Senators are pushing the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration to use some of its new powers under the Green Chemistry initiative—and they may also reintroduce chemicals legislation they carried last year.

Last month, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, introduced SB 22. So far, he said, this bill is a “placeholder,” but it is likely to morph into one of two things—either another attempt at a bill to strengthen chemical disclosure requirements on products sold in California, or “a larger next step on green chemistry.” He also said he may do both bills.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is urging the Governor and the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to use powers granted by legislation last year to prohibit the use of some fire retardants that many scientists say are toxic. Leno said that he may bring back AB 706, legislation he carried in the Assembly last year that would ban two types of fire retardant chemicals many scientists say cause cancer, nerve damage and reproductive harm.

“The governor strongly supports Green Chemistry,” said administration spokeswoman Lisa Page. “But we don’t have a specific position on these bills right now.”

Some of these bills might go against the governor’s stated goal of moving away from “chemical-by-chemical” legislation. Schwarzenegger has been pushing his Green Chemistry Initiative since 2006, gearing up the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal-EPA)—the parent agency to the DTSC—to take on the task of the classifying thousands of chemicals and coming up with a list of viable alternatives to many of the more dangerous ones.

This effort was codified into legislation last year with a pair of bills. AB 1879 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, requires the DTSC to establish a process to classify and ban chemicals by the beginning of 2011. A companion bill, SB 509 by Simitian, establishes a Toxics Information Clearinghouse to aid in the implementation of AB 1879. A spokesperson for Feuer said he is also evaluating doing chemical legislation this year, but doesn’t have any bills ready to announce.

Environmentalists and Democratic legislators generally welcomed these bills as a major step forward in the fight to ban dangerous chemicals. But in floor debate, many legislators also said they were glad they would no longer have to vote on bills to ban specific chemicals. Such talk worries Leno.

“I think an unintended consequence of the passage of AB 1879, which I of course supported and am glad the Governor signed, is that I think it will be much more difficult to gain legislative and gubernatorial support for any future bill that bans particular chemicals,” Leno said.

Simitian said the creation of a larger database of information on thousands of different chemicals must remain the central goal.
“You cannot grow the Green Chemistry movement without having the information you need to make informed choices and judgments,” Simitian said. “Otherwise, we’ll be here for the next century having frustrating, unproductive debates about this chemical or that chemical.”

But this doesn’t mean that he would give up on smaller-scale legislation. SB 509 began its life last session as the so-called “What’s in it?” bill. It moved off both the Assembly and Senate floors with tiny margins, and faced an uncertain fate on the governor’s desk last August when it was amended into the clearinghouse bill that eventually became law.

Current law doesn’t require companies to disclose on labels all the chemicals that are in toys, household cleaners and other products, but Simitian said this information is vital in letting the free market function.

“Use the market to put people in competition with each other for cleaner, greener, safer products,” Simitian urged. “All of the sudden, the guy with hexa-whatever it is in the product will say ‘maybe I ought to get that out.’”

In the current legislature, the governor faces numerous members likely to try to hold him to live up to the “Green Governor” moniker he has often been bestowed in the press. While one Assemblywoman known for carrying toxics legislation termed out last year—Sally Leiber, D-Mountain View—Simitian said Feuer is becoming a new leader on this issue in the Assembly. He also cited other strong Assembly voices in Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, and Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City.

Meanwhile, Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Los Angeles, is continuing the work she began in the Assembly as author of AB 32, the historical global warming emissions bill from 2006. Last month she introduced SB 31, which mandates that compliance fees collected under AB 32 be deposited into the Air Pollution Control Fund it created.

Leno is continuing his effort to ban two classes of fire retardant chemicals, called PBDEs and chlorinated fire retardants. That was the goal of AB 706, authored when he was in the Assembly last session. It failed to make it to the Governor’s desk, though a series of letters from the DTSC appeared to indicate that Schwarzenegger would have vetoed it. A chemical industry-backed group called Californians for Fire Safety lobbied heavily against AB 706.

In an Oct. 6 letter to the Governor, he urged Schwarzenegger to use his powers under AB 1879 to overturn a rule called Technical Bulletin 117. This rule, instituted in the 1970s by the state’s Bureau of Home Furnishings, requires that foam in most furniture sold in California be able to withstand at least 12 seconds exposure to the flame of a Bunsen burner without catching fire. The cheapest way to meet this standard is to mix PBDEs or chlorinated fire retardants into the foam.

Environmental groups have long argued that no other state has this standard, while other states have also seen equal or greater improvements in lowering fire deaths. People in California have twice the level of PBDEs in their blood as people in other states, and many times that of people in Europe.

“I think we could solve the flame retardant problem by having people from DTSC sit down with the people Bureau of Home Furnishings to upgrade the standard to be consistent with the rest of the country, which would protect us from exposure to dangerous chemicals,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director of Environment California.

Leno has indicated that he might reintroduce AB 706 if the Governor and the DTSC don’t act. According to a Nov. 7 reply letter from DTSC director Maureen Gorsen, it appears the agency has no intention to do so. Gorsen brought up the issue of chemicals that have been banned, only to be replaced by more toxic alternatives. Her letter contained no mention of the TB 117.

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