Dems, enviros won’t abandon legislation for Green Chemistry initiative

Since 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has cited his Green Chemistry initiative as a reason not to pursue “chemical-by-chemical” bans.

At a hearing on that initiative on Tuesday, a pair of Democratic legislators sounded a defiant tone. Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, are known as two of the stronger environmental voices in the legislature. Feuer is the author of AB 1879, the 2008 bill that authorized the Green Chemistry regulations.

Meanwhile, Huffman had some tough words for the acting director of the agency responsible for creating those regulations, Maziar Movassaghi of the Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). In particular, Huffman focused on how quickly the agency would act to protect the public.

“What I’m taking away from this is that you are unable to say how long it would take for any given chemical, even one where there is a great deal of scientific consensus,” Huffman said.

Huffman went on to say “we’ve got some calls to make about how much faith” he and others legislators can put into the process, adding: “To be perfectly candid, from what I’m hearing today, we may be in the business of legislating for a while before we can get some results… There are going to be two parallel processes, yours and the legislative one.”
These thoughts were echoed by those in the environmental community. “The Legislature must continue to consider ban bills,” said Ansje Miller, policy director of the Center for Environmental Health and coordinator of Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy, or CHANGE, “even if these regulations were perfect.”

Under Schwarzenegger, that “legislative process” has been largely shut down in favor of the Green Chemistry initiative. His staff cited the initiative in three opposition letters to bills banning particular chemicals in 2007. He also used it as a reason to veto SB 1313 in 2008, a bill that would have banned PFCs, a chemical used in Teflon suspected of toxic and immune affects.

This de facto moratorium has not been complete, however. In 2007, Schwarzenegger signed AB 1108 by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, banning the use of chemicals called phthalates in children’s toys.

Tuesday’s event was a joint hearing of three different Assembly committees: Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, Health and Natural Resources. Its purpose was to invite comment on the 61-page “Draft Regulation for Safer Consumer Products” released by DTSC on June 23.

Those regulations have been criticized by both the chemical industry and environmental groups.

“We’ve heard a lot in the media suggesting that this process is too friendly to industry,” said John Ulrich, co-chair of the Chemical Industry Council of California, testifying at the hearing. “We’re not so sure they’re that friendly to industry.”

While noting that his industry group “continues to voice strong concerns,” Ulrich laid out numerous problems he sees. Many of the guidelines lack specifics, he said, while there was too much public participation laid out in the process of taking comments on particular chemicals.

He also cautioned against rushing “an extremely complex” process that he said goes beyond anything yet attempted in chemicals regulation, while saying that environmental groups were trying to push it forward too quickly.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have been pushing back against regulations they say are too slow and limited. Forty-seven of them signed on to a July 15 letter to Cal-EPA secretary Linda Adams saying they were “extremely disappointed” by the draft regulations. On that same day, Feuer sent a letter to Movassaghi, voicing many of the same concerns.
One particular bone of contention is the regulation’s reliance on the Proposition 65 list. This is a 1986 voter initiative that sought to catalog chemicals which cause cancer and reproductive harm. The draft regulations limit the initiative to acting on chemicals which are on that list. In order for a new chemical to come under the initiative’s regulatory scrutiny, it must go through what critics say is an overly-long process.

“That’s a really bad idea,” Feuer told Movassaghi. “I strongly urge the Department to change that regulation.”

He added, “It’s a very hard list to amend.”

Another key objection was the so-called de minimis rule in the regulations, which would bar the initiative from acting on chemicals used a levels of less than 0.1 percent, or one part per thousand. Bill Allayaud of the Environmental Working Group got up during public comment and ran through a list of chemicals that are active in the human body at doses many times smaller – such as the erectile drug Cialis, which works at doses of 30 parts per billion.

“One part per thousand is absurd,” he said.

Overall, it was a tough assignment for Movassaghi, who took over as head of DTSC in the midst of the Green Chemistry drafting process when former director Maureen Gorsen resigned in March of last year. Throughout his testimony and questioning, he cited the draft nature of the regulations, saying they were still a work in process.

He also sought to sound an upbeat note, saying that he was “more optimistic than a couple of months ago” that his agency would get regulations in place by the January deadline. Critics of the Green Chemistry initiative have repeatedly said the process was moving too slowly. Movassaghi also cited the initiative as making the state a leader nationally and as “an opportunity to reindustrialize California.”

Movassaghi took lumps from both sides — but mainly from those wanting greater environmental regulation. First to testify was Michael Wilson, a research scientist in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the lead author the initial Green Chemistry report commissioned by the Legislature in 2004. While Wilson has generally stayed away from the kind of rhetoric leveled by environmental activists, he has become increasingly willing to criticize the Green Chemistry initiative.  

“Without greater transparency and oversight, the Department runs the risk of capture by industry,” he warned during his testimony.

He also echoed some industry concerns, noting: “If implemented today, the regulations run the risk of creating a burden on business without improving the safety of products on the market.”

Feuer was more direct, at one point going so far as to say “The credibility of this process has been called into question on the floor.”

With that line to Movassaghi, he summed up the ongoing tension over chemical regulation in the Legislature. A small number of Democratic legislators have continued to push for bans on particular chemicals – in particular, Senators Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

Meanwhile, many others have endorsed the primacy of the Green Chemistry process – not just Republicans, but some moderate Democrats. At least one Democrat has reportedly sent an opposition letter to a chemical ban bill this year which cited the initiative.

The initiative also promises to add to Schwarzenegger’s complex environmental legacy as governor. Environmentalists and their allies in the Legislature have continually been confounded by the contrast between a governor who sticks his neck out by proposing a groundbreaking Green Chemistry in the first place – then pursues it in a way that is much more inclusive of industry concerns than they would have preferred.

“The key to green chemistry is the s
ubstitution of scientific judgment for political judgment,” Feuer said, in the midst of a hearing that showed how difficult that substitution can be to pull off.

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