How to judge the chemical industry: Deeds, not words (Part Two)

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made --Jean Giraudoux

In my last post I described how the chemical industry lobby killed Senator Feinstein’s effort to ban the toxic chemical BPA in children’s sippy cups and baby bottles...just before hosting a press briefing to talk about the industry’s supposed commitment to chemical policy reform. The timing of the briefing was at best ironic. Its content was galling.

During the press briefing, American Chemistry Council president Cal Dooley got in a little finger-pointing at actual reform champions, including Senator Frank Lautenberg and Reps. Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman, for taking a “fairly extreme approach” in the legislation they introduced.  He blamed health, environmental justice, medical and consumer groups for not being willing to make “accommodations” to the industry that would have allowed bi-partisan support.   And he also offered this whopper:  “We were disappointed that we didn't have the opportunity to have what I’d say is a constructive engagement that could have moved that proposal to a middle ground.” 

All of this is nonsense. There has been ample opportunity for “constructive engagement” by industry on TSCA reform. Those opportunities included (but were not limited to) six weeks’ worth of meetings convened by Congressman Waxman and his staff with a range of interest groups to discuss what changes should be considered to the “discussion draft” of the TSCA bill introduced by Rush and Waxman in April before it was formally introduced in July.  Members of the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families campaign, including NRDC, attended all of those meetings, as did the ACC and its member companies.  And here’s the kicker: the introduction of that discussion draft was done specifically at the behest of Cal Dooley on behalf of the chemical industry.

Groups interested in TSCA reform were invited to also provide written comments on the discussion draft, and the ACC and several of its member companies did so.  Several of the most serious concerns highlighted in the industry comments were addressed by changes to the draft bill before it was made final.  Given the industry’s flat out opposition to even removing a toxic chemical like BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, and its willingness to torpedo a bi-partisan compromise, it seems that the industry is confusing “constructive engagement” and “accommodation” with total capitulation.

If you look at the ACC’s actions over the past two years, rather than its rhetoric, it appears that its real agenda  is to prevent anything from happening for as long as possible (ideally never) and, if anything actually does happen by way of legislation or regulation, ensure it will be as toothless and ineffective as possible. 

But, of course they aren’t going to say that publicly.  Instead, they have worked overtime to convince all manner of audiences (members of Congress, Administration officials, journalists, and even the public) that the chemical industry is seriously committed to reform of our nation’s chemical laws, that – despite decades of evidence to the contrary – the industry cares about the health and safety of the public.   

Mr. Dooley is an effective public face for the industry.  A former Democratic member of the House, (and afterwards President of the Grocery Manufacturers Association) he took over as head of the ACC in the fall of 2008 as the Democrats seemed poised to win the White House and make further gains in Congress.   He has been visible and persistent in communicating industry’s message and he effectively modulates his message and tone to his particular audience. Sometimes you get to hear the story of “poor Cal” who is trying so hard to hold an internally divided group of chemical companies together, to pilot the ship in the right direction, but is struggling because he can’t prove to his “right flank” that the “other side” is sincere about its willingness to negotiate and compromise.  Sometimes you get “overwrought Cal” who rolls out a parade of horribles that would befall the chemical industry if the legislation introduced in the House and Senate were to become law, or if this or that EPA regulation were to be adopted. (You can find a good description and analysis of his overwrought testimony at a July hearing on TSCA from my EDF colleague Richard Denison here). 

But, if you ask Cal Dooley for specific proposals on how to reform TSCA, or how to protect infants and toddlers from exposure to unsafe chemicals, or how to expand the public’s right to know about unsafe chemicals, or how to take quick action to address routine exposure to chemicals known to cause cancer in animals or humans (or that persist in the environment and build up in the food chain), then you get “Silent Cal.”  In two years, the ACC has not put forward a single substantive proposal for chemical policy reform, in public or private.  At the same time, the industry has opposed every legislative or regulatory effort, at the federal, state, and local levels, to adopt meaningful chemical policy reform, culminating (for the moment) with its deep sixing the Feinstein/Enzi compromise on BPA.

It is in the context of that almost laughably obstructionist record, that Cal Dooley seriously jumped the shark with this statement in his call with reporters: “I think it’s [sic] in some ways it’s incumbent upon us to try to create a political environment that is conducive to leaders in Congress putting together a balanced proposal.  And clearly, that’s what we’re committed to.”  

Reader, he said that on the same day that his trade association demonstrated its commitment to reform by blocking a balanced, narrow, bi-partisan compromise intended to protect babies and toddlers.  The ACC’s commitment was to create a political environment in the Senate not conducive to balance or compromise.  That is just the most recent example of the industry’s M.O. for the past two years: profess a sincere desire for reform, mobilize on all fronts to oppose any actual reform.

Call me naive, but I really don’t see how the industry’s reform spiel is going to fly much farther, even in the next Congress.  When your industry is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent a food safety law from removing a toxic chemical from baby bottles and sippy cups – and prevent it from even getting an open vote in public – what credible claim can you possibly make to be for “reform”? And what absurdist, Orwellian definition of “reform” would you even be talking about if people were still willing to listen?