An international meeting this week will establish rules for identifying which chemicals are so bad for the environment that they should be severely restricted or banned worldwide. The conference in Punta del Este, Uruguay, is the first meeting of governments that are parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. That global treaty initially bans or tightly controls 12 chemicals or categories of substances, including DDT and dioxins.
The meeting has the attention of the U.S. chemical industry and environmental activists alike. But the representatives of the U.S. government, which has been a major player in international chemical management talks, will be sitting on the sidelines.
This is because Congress has failed to pass the implementing legislation required for the U.S. to become a party to the Stockholm convention. The Bush Administration has signed and supports the accord. Yet because it is not a party, the U.S. will have no vote at the Uruguay meeting and faces the possibility of being silenced in future Stockholm convention deliberations.
"The biggest issue looming for us is that the U.S. is not a party" to the Stockholm convention, says Michael P. Walls, managing director of health, products, and science policy at the American Chemistry Council. At the Uruguay meeting, the U.S. will be an observer, "just like ACC is, just like industry or an NGO," he says, referring to nongovernmental organizations such as environmental groups. This will make it challenging for the U.S. to demonstrate its continued interest in providing global leadership on persistent organic pollutants, he says.
But Clifton Curtis, director of the global Toxics Program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), says that even though the U.S. government will have no vote at the meeting, it will still wield substantial power--far more than industry or environmental groups. The U.S. has "a lot of clout" because of the foreign aid it provides and because of the sway it has within global groups such as the World Trade Organization, Curtis says. "Governments will listen" to U.S. positions, he adds.
Glenn Wiser, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law, says the parties at the Uruguay conference are expected to settle on rules of procedure for their future meetings. Those rules will spell out whether and to what degree observers will be allowed to participate in future Stockholm convention talks, where a group of scientific experts will largely determine which chemicals get added to the accord. The rules will also determine how much participation will be allowed of governments that are not official parties, of industry, and of environmental groups.
The group of experts, called the Review Committee, is attracting much attention. This panel will conduct risk assessments and other scientific analyses on chemicals that governments propose to add to the treaty, Wiser says. The committee will recommend to treaty partners whether the proposed substances should be controlled under the accord, Wiser explains. The Review Committee is expected to have 35 to 40 members drawn from throughout the world.
Douglas T. Nelson, executive vice president and general counsel for CropLife America, a pesticide and biotechnology industry group, says companies in his organization are focused on several aspects of the Review Committee. They are concerned about the operating rules for the committee, who its members will be, and the process by which they will recommend more chemicals for control under the accord, he says.
WHAT'S CERTAIN about the Review Committee is that no U.S. representative will be a member for the first two to four years of its existence, Walls of ACC says. Members may come only from countries that are partners to the convention.
"We're disappointed that the U.S. is not a partner and won't be on the Review Committee," says Eric Clark, manager of government relations at the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association.
U.S. chemical companies are particularly concerned with the Review Committee because "the potential for mischief on this is intense," Nelson tells C&EN. CropLife America and its global industry partners in CropLife International want to ensure that the panel carries out a full scientific review and does not take "a scary precautionary principle approach," he says.
Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, counters, "The treaty has a risk-based, scientific evaluation process."
The review panel already has a pending chemical nomination to consider. Norway is proposing the addition of the flame-retardant pentabromodiphenyl ether to the convention. Wiser says the European Union may nominate other brominated flame-retardants for inclusion in the treaty.
WWF, meanwhile, has a list of 20 chemicals that it thinks treaty partners should consider proposing for addition to the Stockholm convention, Curtis says. These 20 substances meet the treaty's initial screening criteria for inclusion in the pact. The Review Committee would have to assess the chemicals and recommend their attachment to the accord, and treaty partners would have to agree on their addition before the compounds were controlled under the pact, he adds.
AMONG THE CHEMICALS that WWF is targeting is perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used to produce polytetrafluoroethylene for products like waterproof, breathable fabrics and DuPont's Teflon. Another substance on WWF's list is perfluorooctyl sulfonate, a once widely used chemical that 3M voluntarily phased out of its Scotchgard stain-resistant coatings. Other compounds are pentachlorobenzene, endosulfan, hexachlorocyclohexane, and hexabromobiphenyl, Curtis tells C&EN.
Also on the agenda for the Uruguay meeting are draft guidelines for reducing or eliminating production of unintentionally produced persistent organic pollutants. Dioxins and furans are classified as unintentional by-products under the Stockholm convention.
A group of experts has drafted guidelines on the "best available techniques" and "best environmental practices" for curbing or stopping unintentional generation of these chemicals. ACC's Walls supports adoption of the guidelines by treaty partners at the Uruguay conference.
But Curtis of WWF, who served on the experts group that developed them, says, "They're not adequate as of yet" and need further work before governments officially adopt them.
Meanwhile, the outlook remains uncertain on congressional action to make the U.S. a party to the Stockholm convention.
Although Republicans, Democrats, industry, and environmental activists all support the U.S. being a party to the pact, Congress has not yet passed legislation needed to make small changes to two chemical control laws so they conform to the terms of the accord. The closest lawmakers came was in 2002, when a Senate panel approved a bill to make the needed changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act.
And legislation to amend the federal pesticides law got bogged down because the Bush Administration insists that Congress not require, but simply allow, the Environmental Protection Agency to give notice to the public when compounds are added to the Stockholm convention (C&EN, March 29, 2004, page 22).
Clark remains hopeful about congressional action but is unsure when that might happen. An international treaty controlling 12 chemicals no longer produced in the U.S. or that are unintentional by-products "may not be a top priority," he says.
Wiser says Congress is unlikely to act to make the U.S. a party unless the Bush Administration shows its support.
What is needed for legislative action on the treaty, Wiser says, "is a major push from the White House."