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Technology and Public Policy

by Rudy M. Baum
June 7, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 23

  The intersection of technology and public policy figures prominently in three stories in this week’s issue of C&EN.

The cover stories by Senior Correspondent Marc Reisch (see pages 19 and 24) anticipate the 20th anniversary of the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, which, on Dec. 3, 1984, killed more than 3,800 people. In the articles, Reisch examines in detail the U.S. chemical industry’s response to the disaster, specifically the adoption the following year of the Canadian chemical industry’s Responsible Care program.

The chemical industry is justifiably proud of Responsible Care. Reisch quotes numerous industry leaders about the difficulties they faced implementing the program, its importance in changing how the chemical industry operates, and new efforts to convince the public that Responsible Care is a substantive program that protects them from harm. Reisch also quotes critics of the program, some of whom will never accept that a voluntary code of conduct such as Responsible Care can effectively change industry practices.

What I’m interested in here is whether Responsible Care codes should form the basis of federal regulations. One criticism of Responsible Care is that it applies only to members of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA). While ACC and SOCMA members manufacture the vast majority of chemicals in the U.S. (and around the world), many manufacturers and many more users of chemicals are not members of either organization.

According to Terry F. Yosie, ACC vice president for Responsible Care, Congress and federal agencies have written 75% of Responsible Care’s requirements into regulations that apply to all chemical manufacturers and users. And ACC wants the trend to continue. “Our members get blamed for the shortcomings of the rest of the industry,” Yosie says. “Government needs to do more to crack down on companies that don’t adopt Responsible Care.”

Is this a reasonable approach to improving the safety of the chemical industry? That’s a public policy question that must be decided by the nation’s lawmakers based on input from many sources. ACC clearly believes it is a sound approach. But Reisch also quotes an environmental activist who is opposed to the use of Responsible Care as “a substitute for regulatory control.” One wonders whether, for this activist at least, regulatory control over the industry isn’t more important than finding effective means for improving industry performance.

In this week’s lead Government & Policy story (see page 27), Senior Editor Cheryl Hogue looks at the Environmental Protection Agency’s three homeland security responsibilities: protecting the nation’s drinking water, decontaminating buildings after a chemical or biological attack, and rapidly assessing risk after such an attack. According to Hogue, research designed to facilitate these responsibilities is carried out through EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center in Cincinnati.

Surprisingly, the Bush Administration’s proposed budget for fiscal 2005 eliminates funds for building decontamination-related homeland security research at EPA, Hogue reports. “This proposal has some members of Congress worried,” she writes. “A number of Republicans and Democrats believe this aspect of the agency’s research should continue.”

According to Hogue, at a hearing of the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology & Standards, Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) stated: “I want to help EPA get the money it needs to carry out this important work.”

In another Government & Policy story, Senior Correspondent Lois Ember talks with Michael A. Levi, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who is advocating the establishment of a new institution for science and technology analysis to help Congress accurately assess issues that come before it (see page 29). Levi advocates a leaner, more flexible organization than Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, which was abolished in 1995.

Technology plays such a central role in modern society—indeed, one can argue that technology has created modern society—that it should not be surprising that political leaders are forced to grapple almost continuously with challenges associated with technological advances and technological failures. C&EN takes seriously its mission to report on these developments.

Thanks for reading.


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