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Regulation

US government shutdown woes hit chemical industry

Impacts include delays in chemical reviews, company acquisitions

by Britt E. Erickson
January 24, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 4

 

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Credit: Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Newscom
The impacts of the US partial government shutdown are being felt by more than just federal workers, shown here rallying on Jan. 10.

The chemical industry is feeling the pain of the US government partial shutdown, which started on Dec. 22, 2018, and is the longest in history. The US Environmental Protection Agency is not evaluating new chemicals and pesticides, creating a large backlog of substances waiting for approval to enter the market. The EPA has postponed meetings related to its evaluation of toxic chemicals currently in use and put on hold rules that would restrict the uses of certain toxic chemicals. Chemical companies are also delaying acquisitions because the government is not reviewing such agreements during the shutdown.

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The EPA office that evaluates the risks of chemicals and pesticides employs 981 federal workers, of which 22 are required to work without pay during a government shutdown. “There is currently no ongoing work on new chemicals,” the EPA confirmed in a Jan. 22 email. The agency indefinitely postponed a meeting planned for Jan. 29–Feb. 1 on the health risks of pigment violet 29, the first of 10 chemicals the EPA must evaluate by the end of the year. In addition, a final EPA rule that is expected to ban methylene chloride in consumer paint strippers has been waiting for approval by the White House since Dec. 21.

“Along with delays in the rulemaking process and hampering the agency’s ability to meet important deadlines required by the law, U.S. innovation and competitiveness could be stifled because EPA’s new chemicals program is not reviewing submissions during the shutdown,” the American Chemistry Council, which represents US chemical manufacturers, says in a statement.

 

553

Number of applications for new chemicals waiting for the EPA’s review as of Dec. 18, according to the agency

 

It is unclear how many new chemical applications have been submitted to the EPA during the shutdown because the agency is not checking the system. The EPA had 553 new chemicals under review on Dec. 18, the last day the agency updated such information on its website. That number, which does not include pesticides, is already well above the EPA’s average caseload of 300 because new chemical applications surged in early October just before new user fees paid by chemical manufacturers became effective under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA completes about 1,000 reviews of new chemicals each year.

Environmental groups are concerned that when the EPA reopens, the agency will weaken regulatory standards in the face of pressure to quickly eliminate the backlog of new chemicals. When EPA was faced with a similar backlog in early 2017, the agency changed course in how it evaluates chemicals. Under President Donald J. Trump, “implementation of the 2016 reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has pretty much gone off the rails, deviating from what the law requires, failing to reflect the best available science, and not protecting public health,” Richard Denison, a lead senior scientist at the environmental group, Environmental Defense Fund, says in a recent blog post.

Pesticide manufacturers are worried that the EPA will not be able to review applications for new pesticide products or new uses of existing products in time for the spring planting season. The agency’s pesticide office typically reviews about 300 applications each month. The shutdown is also raising concerns about disruption in the production and supply of pesticides that rely on imported active ingredients. During a government shutdown in 2013 that lasted 16 days, pesticide imports languished at ports because the EPA did not process import notices.

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The shutdown has also affected the US Department of the Treasury, which coordinates reviews related to foreign investment in the US. One consequence is that the acquisition of US silicone maker Momentive Performance Materials by a South Korean investment group may be delayed. The companies extended the foreign investment clearance deadline for the $3.1 billion deal to June 13.

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