BY JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service
LANSING- A new state coalition is pushing for changes to federal chemical laws that have been in place since the 1970s, citing both environmental concerns and economic impact.
The Michigan Coalition for Chemical Safety includes groups involved in the production and use of chemicals. Those chemicals are used to make products ranging from batteries to fertilizer.
The coalition wants Congress to change current laws regarding the control of toxic substances and give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clearer definitions of what chemicals are legal and more capacity to enforce its rules.
Its goal is to create a uniform national law regarding chemicals, both to promote safer chemical policy and to streamline business practices, according to Stephen Rapundalo, president of MichBio, a bioscience industry trade association based in Ann Arbor.
Other coalition members include the Michigan Manufacturers Association, Michigan Agri-Business Association and Michigan Allied Poultry Industries.
“There’s many chemicals out there that haven’t been characterized for their safety features or toxicity,” Rapundalo said. “There needs to be standards that are put in place that are uniform, across the board, and that everyone can follow. That way you can compare one product side by side to a competitor’s product.”
He referred to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which outlines how the EPA can regulate substances such as asbestos, radon and lead-based paints.
Rapundalo said current laws don’t afford the EPA enough authority. “The problem right now is that the EPA does not have as much regulatory enforcement capability as one might imagine.”
“For example, the EPA cannot regulate asbestos the way the Food and Drug Administration can regulate drugs and tobacco. Yet asbestos has killed many people and has many hazards in terms of safety,” he said.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson released proposed guidelines in September for strengthening the federal agency’s management of chemicals. The guidelines would authorize the EPA to determine the dangers of chemicals, require companies to provide the agency necessary information to make such determinations and encourage more green chemistry jobs.
Mike Shriberg, policy director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, said that the coalition’s interest in updating the law represents a turnaround for the chemical industry.
“I guess it’s good that the business interests have decided that the law they’ve defended for over 30 years actually isn’t working to protect Americans from toxic chemicals,” Shriberg said. “That’s a really positive step.
“However,” he said, “it’s a little disingenuous that they try and frame the national coalition as a nonprofit social welfare organization. If you look at who it is, it’s the chemical industry and related interests. If they are a coalition of the chemical industry, they should be clear that’s who they’re representing.”
The Michigan organization is affiliated with the National Coalition for Chemical Safety in Washington, D.C.
Rapundalo said a revised national law could streamline the regulation process for many companies operating in multiple states.
“Since there’s no uniform federal laws, the various states have gone about doing their own thing, so there’s this patchwork in each state,” Rapundalo said.
That means that a company could have to spend more to comply with multiple state regulations instead of a single national regulation.
Rep. Jeff Mayes, D-Bay City, is a member of the Michigan coalition. He said that states with different environmental standards can make it difficult to market new products across the country.
Mayes noted that his district includes “companies like Dow Chemical, that are making major investments in battery technology. Batteries are simply a plastic container loaded with chemicals for the purpose of making electricity,” Mayes said.
“If every state had different standards on how those batteries function, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “If we’re serious about making, promoting and selling the electric vehicle, having these standards in different states could be a barrier to its actual deployment.”
The Ecology Center’s Shriberg expressed concern about counting on new federal regulations, especially any time soon.
“Each state is unique in its ecological vulnerability. Each state is unique in the people that they have, the human populations there,” Shriberg said. “Waiting for Congress to act is a flawed strategy for any state.
“There’s no question that we need congressional action, but the wheels of Congress turn slowly, whereas states have been the ones that are actually developing the reforms of chemical policy we need to move forward,” he said.
Even so, Shriberg said that economic growth can go hand in hand with responsible environmental goals.
“We believe, as I think this coalition believes, that green chemistry and the use of safer alternatives hold huge economic development potential,” Shriberg said. “To get there you need a very strong and clear federal law, and a set of state laws that gets rid of some of the worst chemicals on the market and requires that chemicals are proven safe before they’re put on the market.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.