Issue Date: June 16, 2014
Industry And NGOs Go Head-To-Head At Helsinki Chemicals Forum
The 9th annual Helsinki Chemicals Forum, held in Finland’s capital late last month, featured plenty of direct, even heated, discussion. Attracting about 200 delegates from 40 countries, the forum was dominated by the topics of hydraulic fracturing, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP), all from the perspective of environmental impact.
The chemical industry’s desire on each of the three topics for case-by-case evaluation of problems contrasted sharply with the overarching regulation sought by the nongovernment organizations, or NGOs, at the event. The underlying conference theme was the global harmonization of chemical regulation, but those discussions were also characterized by fundamental differences of opinion. From the way it went in Helsinki, chemical safety management is as contentious as ever.
“To state that trade will trump the environment under TTIP is absurd,” said an irked Michael Walls, vice president of the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical firms, during the forum’s panel discussion on the potential impact of TTIP.
Walls’s words were targeted at Baskut Tuncak, an attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO. Tuncak had just asserted that TTIP would create alignment of chemical policies across the Atlantic that would weaken Europe’s stringent environmental laws. Tuncak also raised concerns about the undemocratic nature of the discussions around TTIP—the largest bilateral trade deal ever attempted—which are being held largely in private.
Walls and fellow panelist Hubert Mandery, director of Europe’s main chemical industry organization, CEFIC, maintained that TTIP is strictly a trade deal and won’t influence environmental policy. According to the industry representatives, TTIP could collectively yield chemical companies $1.5 billion annually from the closer alignment of chemical policies, reduced red tape, and removal of 3% tariffs on goods traded between Europe and the U.S. The key savings, states the European Union in a recent communication, will come from removing bureaucracy and regulation while liberalizing trade in services.
But Tuncak argued that the tariffs can be removed without the regulatory weakening that he sees as part of the agreement. “It’s not a typical trade agreement but a regulatory agreement,” he said. “Toxic chemicals impose staggering health, remediation, and other costs on public resources and individuals. TTIP would decelerate recent action to reduce the rapidly escalating costs of decades of inaction.”
Björn Hansen, head of chemicals in the European Commission’s environment unit, came down on the same side as industry during the panel discussion. He concluded that “this is an area where we can gain without compromising any level of protection.”
The U.S. and Europe already work together to develop testing protocols, set priorities, and identify emerging issues for chemicals through the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development. This shows that both regions can improve efficiencies without interfering with regulatory policy under TTIP, Hansen said.
The battle lines were drawn equally sharply during a discussion of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs. Peter Smith, head of CEFIC’s product stewardship program, told the audience that industry would rather not have a new regulation to deal specifically with endocrine disruptors. Smith declared his “reassurance in existing regulations to provide safeguards.” Evaluating endocrine disruptors on a case-by-case basis is the best way to handle such chemicals, he said.
But this approach wasn’t acceptable to Ninja Reineke, senior policy adviser with CHEM Trust and an NGO panelist who repeatedly traded points with Smith. “If we wait for the strongest possible science, then we have to wait for the effects of EDCs to appear,” Reineke said.
Endocrine disruptors pose a particular problem because exposure to them doesn’t follow a standard dose-response model. Rather, humans and wildlife may be susceptible even at extremely low doses at certain times, such as during fetal development. Legislation does not currently account for this, Reineke stated.
Reineke and Smith had polar positions on whether the current science is sufficiently advanced to ensure the effective screening, monitoring, testing, and assessment of endocrine disruptors and on what to do with such data. Smith took the view that thresholds are important and that substances should be regulated for harm rather than “regulating substances out of existence.” Reineke held that regulators must take a more precautionary approach and determine their level of action based on whether a chemical is a potential, suspected, or confirmed endocrine disruptor.
Similar polarity showed up during a discussion on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior policy adviser for the International POPs Elimination Network, an NGO focused on persistent organic pollutants, reeled off a series of cases of fracking wells being investigated for causing pollution, particularly in her home nation of Australia.
Lloyd-Smith pointed to scientific evidence that fracking has had a direct impact on human health and the environment. “We know that of the chemicals used in fracking one-third are carcinogenic and that a number of EDCs are involved,” she said. “We are already seeing communities in Australia suffering health effects, and we are seeing that in the U.S. as well.”
Lloyd-Smith’s argument was countered, however, with a succinct response from Stuart Kemp, senior director of environmental law for Halliburton Energy Services, who asserted that “there has never been, not once,” a case against a fracking company that has succeeded in a court of law. Fracking wells carry no distinct risks that are not already accounted for under existing oil and gas legislation, so no new legislation is required, he said.
Successful legal cases against fracking could soon emerge, Lloyd-Smith argued. She flagged an ongoing government investigation into the release of methane along the Condamine River in Australia and a legal case being brought by Australian farmers against Santos, a fracking company, for the contamination of two water boreholes close to exploration wells.
Amid the rancor, broader discussions about regulation, and particularly the global harmonization of chemical data, bubbled away during the Helsinki forum. The harmonization concept was promoted by Geert Dancet, executive director of the European Chemicals Agency, the body responsible for managing the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), the EU’s chemicals regulation.
Dancet opened the forum by making the case that REACH is beneficial for society and innovation. Later, Jukka Malm, Dancet’s deputy, wrapped up the forum with the message that sharing and harmonizing chemical safety data can save countries money, enhance safety, and cut animal testing.
But even this view was not universal. Representatives from several countries, including China, South Korea, and Russia, argued that their countries are not ready to share chemical safety data and definitely not interested in sharing chemical policy.
“It’s impossible” to harmonize chemical regulations globally, said Jun Ho Lee, senior researcher with South Korea’s Testing & Research Institute, citing political differences between countries and the regulatory burden that such an approach would place on South Korea’s small companies. “Each risk assessment should be performed based on each country’s environmental factors,” he said.
Malm tried to remain optimistic. “We are all in the same boat—even if some of us are traveling by sail, rowing, or using an engine to get there,” he concluded. Malm could be right. But whatever approach each country takes, contentious issues such as TTIP, endocrine disruptors, and fracking will mean choppy water ahead for all interested parties.
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