Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Bush Administration Reaches Out to Strangle European Chemical Initiative

Senators Object

The Bush administration has filed a formal comment with the World Trade Organization that (surprise, surprise) is critical of Europe's proposed system to regulate industrial chemicals, commonly known as REACH. Meanwhile, Senators Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Jim Jeffords (I-VT) sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick expressing their "concern that the Bush administration is catering to the U.S. chemical industry in its opposition to a proposed European environmental law."
Lautenberg and Jeffords called on Mr. Zoellick to explain in detail how the administration developed its position, what analysis it performed, and whether it allowed public health officials, labor, environmental or consumer groups to have a voice in developing the U.S. position.


The Senators wrote, "We are troubled by reports that the position of this administration on REACH may reflect the interests of a narrow segment of U.S. industry without consideration of the broader ramifications for the U.S. economy, national interest, public health, and the environment." They also requested the administration to specify, "which provisions of REACH you consider may be in conflict with provisions of the relevant WTO agreements."
The administration's complaint foretold the end of Western Civilization should the policy be implemented. In short, the complaint predicted "substantial potential adverse effects on European economic growth and employment," and that it could "adversely impact production and transatlantic trade worth tens of billions of dollars in chemicals and downstream products," "impact the majority of U.S. goods exported to the EU," cause "manufacturers of chemicals for many applications to halt production," force "some EU and foreign manufacturers of chemicals and downstream products [to] simply exit the EU market," [impose] "disruptions on importers of chemicals..., impact negatively innovation and hinder the introduction into the EU market of more effective and safer chemicals and downstream products," cause "uncertainty in the market," and "anti-competitive results."

Furthermore, according to the U.S. document, there are problems with workability, viability of small manufacturers, complex administrative coordination, needless duplication and a lack of consistency in implementation and enforcement.

In sum,
the draft regulation still appears to adopt a particularly costly, burdensome, and complex approach, which could prove unworkable in its implementation, disrupt global trade, and adversely impact innovation.
But never fear, the document assures the Europeans that
The United States shares the EU’s interest in ensuring robust protection of the environment and human health. Our societies demand that we achieve these objectives. These are objectives we achieve through our domestic regulation and through our active participation in activities to promote international regulatory cooperation and harmonization in the area of chemicals.
Of course, "our domestic regulation" that allegedly achieves "robust protection of the environment and human health" has a few problems as I've outlined before:

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed in 1976, does a fairly good job requiring chemical manufacturers to test and prove the safety of new chemicals.

The main problem with TSCA is that when it was passed, it “grandfathered” in chemicals in commerce prior to December 1979, which still make up 99% by volume of all chemicals used in the United States today. These chemicals are considered safe unless the Environmental Protection Agency can demonstrate that they present an “unreasonable risk” to human health and the environment on a chemical by chemical basis.

The ineffectiveness of TSCA was made clear in a 1994 Report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office that found that since TSCA was passed, EPA has only been able to restrict only five chemicals (PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium.)

According to the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that less than ten percent of the approximately 2,800 high production volume chemicals (those produced over one million pounds per year) have a basic set of publicly available toxicity information;more than forty percent lack any toxicity information at all. Even less is known about chemicals produced in smaller volumes or mixtures of chemicals. Yet, this lack of evidence of toxicity is often misinterpreted as evidence of safety.
In May, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) released a report detailing how the State Department and other US government agencies "planned a wide range of actions to build opposition to REACH." Among those actions were cables sent by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, drawing heavily on themes developed by industry representatives instructing US embassies to argue that REACH "appears to be a costly, burdensome, and complex regulatory system, which could prove unworkable in its implementation."

Waxman called on President Bush to make public details of the U.S. activities with regard to REACH and a clear statement that the U.S. will not work to undermine environmental protections in other countries. "Every sovereign nation should be permitted to enact legitimate public health and environmental protections as they see fit."

President Bush clearly feels that the right of a sovereign nation to enact public health and environmental regulations ends at the point where it affects the profits and prerogatives of the U.S. chemical industry. For that reason, it is vitally important that we support the European REACH initiative as it becomes increasingly (and depressingly) clear that until there is a major change in the political/power relationships in this country, we may never be able to achieve adequate protections against chemicals hazards threatening American workers, consumers and communities (despite recurring "popcorn lung" and other, less evident tragedies.) The European initiative may be the only tool with enough leverage to force changes in an American chemical industry that wants to keep doing business in Europe. It's good to see Congressman Waxman and Senators Lautenberg and Jeffords standing up to the administration. Let's see if we can't elect enough additional like-minded representatives (and a President, while we're at it) who will support the Europeans instead of undermining them.