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Helsinki Puts Out The Welcome Mat

Finnish capital works to overcome image of frozen north and make new chemicals agency feel at home

by Patricia L. Short
August 14, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 33

Credit: Anneli Hongisto/City of Helsinki Picture Bank
Helsinki aims to charm potential recruits for the new European Chemicals Agency.
Credit: Anneli Hongisto/City of Helsinki Picture Bank
Helsinki aims to charm potential recruits for the new European Chemicals Agency.

It's quite a challenge: establishing an agency that has not yet been approved and administering a chemicals regulation program that has yet to be passed.

But that's what the European Commission is grappling with as it sets up, in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, the European Chemicals Agency. ECHA will be the main body responsible for administering REACH, the program for registration, evaluation, and authorization of chemicals that is wending its way through the European lawmaking process.

Moreover, points out Jukka Malm, director of expert services at the Finnish Environment Institute, ECHA "will be an important agency, one of the biggest in the European Union, and one of the few with power to make binding decisions."

REACH was passed by the European Parliament at the end of last year, but another version was passed by the European Union's Council of Ministers shortly afterward. The two versions now must be reconciled, which is expected when the parliament votes again on REACH this fall. A council acceptance is expected to follow shortly after that, shepherded by the Finnish government, which took over the rotating EU presidency in July and whose term will expire at the end of the year.

Agreement, expected by the end of the year, will mean that REACH should go into effect next April. A year later, REACH, and ECHA, will be fully functional. And despite complaints voiced by trade officials from the U.S. and other countries that REACH assesses chemicals on the basis of hazard rather than risk, European chemical industry executives see little likelihood of substantial change in the program.

Helsinki landed ECHA thanks to earlier horse-trading within the European Union. The European Commission, the administrative arm of the EU, tries to bestow agencies and offices equally around the EU and originally had proposed putting the European Food Safety Agency in Helsinki and ECHA in Italy. Italian legislators, however, fought to gain the food agency. The compromise, in December 2003, was to put food in Parma, Italy, and chemicals in Helsinki.

When ECHA was first discussed, as part of the original REACH proposals in 2002, the agency was expected to have limited power; all evaluations and approvals would have been handled by individual member countries. But the legislation was massaged and amended as it made its way through the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and one of the results has been a rethinking and strengthening of ECHA.

In part, its emergent strength reflects intense lobbying from industry, led by the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), in support of the concept of a central agency. A strong central agency, the industry argued, would be preferable to a plethora of countries interpreting REACH in individual and often contradictory ways.

Under the assumption that REACH legislation will be finalized later this year, the commission issued a "call for expression of interest" in February for prospective ECHA employees. "The agency will be established by the proposed REACH regulation," the call noted, with REACH expected to enter into force "in or about April 2007."

In October, job candidates will undergo a training program while working in multinational teams responsible for the practical preparations for REACH. Successful candidates will take up a position in ECHA as soon as possible, probably around July 2007.

These employees, the commission added, "will be responsible for laying the foundation for an organization at the center of a new legislative strategy designed to bring about improved health and environment while maintaining industrial competitiveness." The commission expects the agency to eventually employ 500 persons, up from the 200 staffers originally envisaged.

As the name REACH indicates, ECHA staff will be responsible for the registration, evaluation, and authorization of chemicals. Registration will involve receiving dossiers on chemicals and managing them in a database, making information available to the public as allowed by rules of confidentiality.

Evaluation involves assessing dossiers and making decisions on further testing of chemicals that might pose a risk to human health. Authorization comes into play for carcinogens, teratogenic materials, bioaccumulative substances, and other hazardous chemicals. Manufacturers will need to make the case to ECHA that the risks of their products can be controlled or that suitable alternatives aren't available.

The agency will also coordinate restrictions of substances, Malm says. For example, if a country wants to ban a substance, it must submit a dossier to ECHA, which will evaluate it and recommend a course of action to the commission.

ECHA, Malm notes, "is a key actor in the implementation of REACH." The agency will work closely with regulatory authorities in member countries, but he predicts that industry will wind up working primarily with ECHA. "Without an efficient agency, REACH won't be successful," he adds.

The Finnish government has set up two committees to coordinate the establishment of ECHA, the first EU agency to be located in the country. Coordination is being handled by the prime minister's office, not the national department responsible for regulating chemicals. Malm, who has been involved in Finnish chemicals regulation for more than 15 years, is Finland's coordinator for the project.

The European Commission has the primary responsibility for establishing the agency, setting its budget, recruiting staff, and the like. For the Finnish government, in contrast, the project comes down to being a good host.

To enable ECHA to be up and running when REACH comes into effect, Malm says, the Finnish government has found a suitable office building for the agency. "We can't wait until ECHA is established before we look for premises. We wanted it to be ready for the first staff to move into."

In February, Malm's team leased a building in Helsinki's city center, now occupied by an insurance company that is in the process of building a new headquarters elsewhere. The building will provide office space for up to 500 people. It also has conference rooms that will allow the agency to host monthly meetings with member-state experts. Later, the agency will be free to move elsewhere in Helsinki, Malm notes.

The Finns are also preparing information about many practical things that expatriates need to know: opening bank accounts, schools for children, housing, and so on. The city of Helsinki has created a for potential ECHA recruits.

Malm concedes that the initial response many people have to living in Nordic Europe included such comments as " 'Never in Helsinki. It's too far. It's too cold.' But people are getting more interested. When the real recruitment comes and jobs open, there will be lots of interest," he predicts.

It will be important, points out Alain Perroy, CEFIC's director general, for the ECHA staff to hail from a wide range of European countries. If most of the staff is Finnish or Swedish, it won't be a truly European agency and in that respect will be a failure, he says.

That is particularly true for the executive director. According to Malm, there is an unwritten rule that the executive director of an agency "does not come from the host country." The commission plans to appoint an interim director who will be supported by a management board that will then nominate an executive director. The commission will prepare a short list of candidates, and the selected executive director can take office in autumn 2007.

"Normally, with an agency, there is no hurry to set it up," Malm says. "ECHA, though, must be completely in effect one year after REACH comes into force. We cannot wait until then for an executive director to be nominated and then staff recruited."

That's why the Finns have put out their welcome mat. As it would say in Finnish, "Tervetuloa!"


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