Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration has unveiled a draft outline of legislation this week that could bring regulating toxic chemicals in Washington state under the umbrella of the Department of Ecology — away from the Legislature’s purview — and could spell far-reaching implications for manufacturers and industries.
Inslee’s policy staff brought the proposal before a host of business interests Tuesday, pitching the case that having the Legislature cede control would be in their favor ultimately because they now have a say in shaping Ecology’s process of evaluating chemical safety and finding safer alternatives.
The draft sketches a potential bill, but it will most likely see revisions before it ever reaches the Code Reviser’s Office. It’s part of a two-pronged approach Inslee’s administration is taking to chemical regulation currently, coupled with a proposed Ecology rule on fish consumption that aims to improve the quality of the state’s waterways.
If business is opposed to this approach, some key groups weren’t willing to say as much Wednesday. Brandon Houskeeper, director of government affairs and environmental policy for the Association of Washington Business, said his organization is in the process of reviewing the draft.
“We are still evaluating it,” Houskeeper said. “There’s certainly been a lot of debate in the Legislature. The Legislature has a long-standing tradition of not ceding their authority on things like this to the Department of Ecology.”
Jennifer Gibbons, senior director of state government affairs for the Toy Industry Association, echoed Houskeeper. “Certainly we’re keeping track of it,” Gibbons said. “We’re still taking a look at it.” The American Chemistry Council did not return phone calls seeking comment.
But environmental groups such as the Washington Toxics Coalition welcomed the proposal.
“I don’t think there’s anything that we’re unhappy with,” said Randi Abrams-Caras of the Toxics Coalition. “We like where (Inslee’s) going. We like that someone at the executive level is concerned about toxic chemicals in consumer products.”
HOW IT WOULD WORK
The legislation would allow Ecology, along with the Department of Health, to create a list of 150 chemicals that would be designated as “high priority” by 2018. They’d have to meet state law requirements on posing a risk to children’s health, and be shown to be present in the environment based on tests and studies.
From there, the director of Ecology would cull that list down to 20 chemicals that could be subject to “chemical action plans” that would establish reporting requirements on manufacturers that use these chemicals. Four of those chemicals would be selected from there, and the plans would have manufacturers spell out ways to cut down or eliminate the threats they pose to natural resources and human health.
Through the chemical action plans, manufacturers would also have to come up with “alternative assessments,” which Ecology would review and determine if a safer alternative chemical exists. Based on that determination, it could restrict or ban the use of these chemicals.
THE RIGHT APPROACH?
Abrams-Caras said this was the best way Washington could take on the threats posed by toxics, as she believes it addresses potential contamination at the source, rather than through expensive, drawn-out clean up processes.
Moreover, she said it would take chemical regulation out of a political process in the Legislature and into a setting where scientists would make the critical judgments on safety.
“The governor has taken a reasoned approach,” Abrams-Caras said. “That’s getting it at the source rather than cleaning it up. We can start the process.”
Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center, said he was unconvinced. Myers said the state’s experience in banning a chemical flame retardant called polybrominated diphenyl ethers should be a cautionary tale before the Legislature cedes regulatory authority to Ecology.
The Legislature banned PBDEs in 2007, with the intent of phasing out use of a form believed to be particularly harmful due to its level of bioaccumulation in humans and potential toxicity. But Myers said the ban only led manufacturers to use still potentially risky but legal alternatives, undermining the intent of the original law.
He contends that bans on proven chemicals leads industries to rely on newer alternatives that have uncertain effects on human health and the environment.
“The safer alternatives tend to be brand new and untested,” Myers said. “We actually have done this before. We have tried this exact process with PBDEs. Why would we expect it to be different with a longer list of chemicals?”
DEAD ON ARRIVAL IN A GOP SENATE?
A first-blush reading of the draft legislation might lead one to believe that this kind of a proposal would be a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled Senate. Perhaps — but maybe not.
There’s a line of logic circulating among business groups in the capital, and it looks like this: Inslee could extract concessions on toxics legislation from pivotal industries like Boeing and Weyerhaeuser based on trade-offs on the fish consumption rule, which has the potential to be far more impactful to them than toxics reduction.
Inslee spokesman David Postman flatly denied interest in any kind of trade off, saying the impetus for the proposals on fish consumption was federally required updates to improving water quality standards. Washington’s current standards were established in 1992, and Inslee said he believes they’re outdated.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it could inherit the rule-making process on fish consumption if the state doesn’t act quickly enough, but the state seems likely to surpass an EPA-set deadline of the eclipse of 2014. According to the Associated Press, Inslee won’t wrap up the fish consumption rule until toxics reduction moves in the Legislature.
“I don’t see it as a political trade off,” Postman said Wednesday. “The hybrid approach to water quality is what the governor, his staff and the Department of Ecology think is the best way to make meaningful improvements. It really is an effort to get at growing sources of water pollution.”
Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen, whose Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee the proposed legislation could potentially pass through, wasn’t willing to say how the proposal would fare in front of his committee.
“We’ll take a look at the Governor’s legislative proposal,” Ericksen said. “The Legislature wants to be very cautious about granting any more rule-making authority. We look forward to meeting with the Governor’s Office on that.”