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Entrepreneurs, inventors hurt by ‘green chemistry’ law

“The Miracle Worker” opens at the Sacramento Theater Company this week, and while it remains the timeless story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, the title may also be ironically apt for Gov. Jerry Brown.

Why?  Through his administration’s bureaucratic excess, the governor has achieved a true phenomenon: He has united Republicans and Democrats in one of the most divided Legislatures in America.  The bad news is it’s in opposition to his very own regulators.

This is happening because of regulations implementing the state’s 2009-passed “Green Chemistry” law.  The law supposedly will make life safer for California residents by ensuring that all products are designed to be “green.”  But it is destined to fail – costing consumers without delivering benefits.

The regulations – created by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) – propose the development of a government-devised “chemicals of concern” list.  Initially containing about 1,200 chemicals, it will include substances that possess certain “hazard profiles” as determined by politically-derived standards rather than an assessment of risk.

Seems far-fetched?  Here’s what Debbie Raphael, the Director of the DTSC has to say: “In its simplest terms, the Regulation requires manufacturers whose consumer product contains a toxic ingredient to ask: ‘Is this ingredient necessary?  Is there a safer alternative?  Is that alternative ingredient feasible?’  In addition, by listing the chemicals that the State will be examining in consumer products, manufacturers have the opportunity to design out the use of those chemicals ahead of time.”

It all sounds pretty reasonable, but only if you miss the key words here: “Design out the use of those chemicals ahead of time.” 

Raphael’s unmistakable message to business and manufacturers is “We list the ingredients, you check your products and, if any match, you’d better make the changes yourself, if you know what I mean.”  Talk about fire, ready, aim.

Too bad if you’re an entrepreneur or inventor who worked and risked and made a product that ends up on Raphael’s list.  His or her entire life’s work may go up in smoke as the product is splashed across newspaper headlines as “toxic.”

The point here isn’t that everything Raphael says is wrong, it’s that she is perfectly willing to allow a chemical to be unjustifiably condemned as “unsafe”, if it also leads to more public awareness of other risks.  But why should any innocent party get harmed?

That’s why a miracle of bipartisanship happened.

Democratic State Sen. Michael Rubio joined a bipartisan group of legislators officially requesting a delay of green chemistry regulations, proclaiming, “It is without contention that the range and scope of these regulations is wide and can impact every manufacturer, business and consumer in California and beyond.”

Not specific enough?  Sen. Rubio went further: “These regulations could affect nearly every product sold in the state of California – from cars and computers to shampoo and cleaning products.”

GOP Assemblyman Jeff Miller (Vice Chair of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials) added more in sorrow than in ager: “I can promise that we came together to try and support “Green Chemistry”, but we can’t defend this final product, which could become California’s next regulatory train wreck and yet another business-unfriendly move by a state with shockingly high unemployment.”

Notice the legislators did not call for “green chemistry” to be done away with.  What they are asking for is no more than a thorough economic analysis that will bring this regulation in line with SB 617, which Brown signed into law last year.  It simply states any new major regulation developed by a department or agency in California must have a robust economic analysis. 

This seems the very least the state can do in order to help officials understand more about the true costs of the regulations and be able to assist those businesses most affected to reduce costs and achieve workable compliance.

For too long, Sacramento regulators have tried to communicate with the private sector using complex regulations and even well-intentioned red tape.  The confused and befuddled response only confirms the bureaucracy’s view that job creators and business leaders are deaf, dumb and blind. 

This must end.  And it will be no miracle when leaders on both sides of the political aisle reform sweeping policies that deliver all regulatory risk and no economic reward.

Ed’s Note: Jonathan Wilcox is a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.

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