The (In)Artful Dodger: Chemical Industry Witness Evades Requests for Engagement on Toxics Reform

Shortly before Thanksgiving, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on legislation – the Safe Chemicals Act – which would repair the 35-year-old law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has utterly failed to protect the public from exposure to thousands of chemicals whose effects are unknown, and hundreds of chemicals known to be unsafe for human health.  Congressional hearings are often predictable and boring. This one was anything but boring, and it certainly wasn’t predictable! Instead it turned into a public showdown where a large swath of the chemical industry finally, fully revealed itself to be thoroughly unwilling to engage constructively on TSCA reform legislation.

The hearing on the Safe Chemicals Act had an interesting line-up of witnesses. The Democrat witnesses included Ted Sturdevant Director of the Department of Ecology for Washington state, Charlotte Brody of the Blue Green Alliance (a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups of which NRDC is a member), and Richard Denison of Environmental Defense Fund, also testifying on behalf of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families (a coalition of public interest groups supporting TSCA reform, of which NRDC is a member). Witnesses for the Republicans were Robert Matthews, counsel to the trade association Consumer Specialty Products Association, and Cal Dooley, President of the American Chemistry Council (formerly known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association).    The written testimony provided by the witnesses is worth reading (I’ve linked to it above; webcast of the hearing here). 

After the usual opening remarks by the Senators in attendance (including a strong and clear statement in support of reform, well-delivered by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand – it starts at minute 33:08 of the webcast), and the presentation of testimony by each of the witnesses (allotted the standard five minutes each), the “Q&A” portion of the hearing commenced, and that’s when things veered off into uncharted territory.   Senator Lautenberg – the Chair of the Hearing and the Sponsor of the Safe Chemicals Act – engaged in an exchange with Cal Dooley that, although it transpired in a low-key way, actually made many observes in the room sit up and take notice (webcast at minutes 72:52 to 74:40). Senator Lautenberg asked Mr.  Dooley whether the industry would be willing to provide specific suggestions on how the Safe Chemicals Act could be improved, from the perspective of the chemical industry, and if it would do so by the end of the calendar year.   Mr. Dooley sought to avoid directly answering the question and instead responded with a general statement that the issue is “very complex” and that it is going to take a “significant period of time” to resolve all of the complex issues.  When Senator Lautenberg restated the question Dooley responded:  “we will provide the information and our ideas in the appropriate fashion.”  The answer had qualities of both evasiveness and disrespect that were instantly palpable.  Amongst those in the audience, both from health and environmental groups and the chemical industry – as well as the Senators and their staff who were present – jaws dropped and ears perked up.  I could almost hear Dooley’s industry colleagues groaning from the audience. It was guaranteed -- and perhaps even calculated -- to elicit a heated response and more pointed follow-up questioning.  And in fact that is exactly what happened. 

Although Senator Lautenberg’s time for questions ran out (the members typically each have five minutes), other Senators picked up the thread, particularly Senators Ben Cardin of Maryland (80:15 to 86:51), Tom Udall of New Mexico (93:49 to 99:40) and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island (106:45 to 112:33).  Each of these Senators pressed Dooley hard on why the members of his trade association -- which has purported for three years to be in support of TSCA reform – would reject an overture from the bill’s sponsor to provide substantive suggestions and engage in an effort to reach a mutually agreeable compromise on the legislation.  Mr. Dooley bobbed and weaved, strenuously avoiding the truth: that the chemical companies that Mr. Dooley was speaking for have no interest in moving forward on TSCA reform legislation – certainly not before 2013, and more likely never. 

Each of the three Senators took a different tack with Mr. Dooley, but he was steadfast in his refusal to agree to take any concrete steps to try and reach a compromise prior to a mark-up, which it appears will take place early in 2012.  A particularly comedic, if not farcical exchange occurred when Senator Whitehouse asked Mr. Dooley if the ACC would provide the committee a “red-line” version of the Safe Chemicals Act with industry’s proposed changes.  Mr. Dooley primly demurred on the grounds that it would be improper for the chemical industry to usurp the function of legislators to draft legislation.  Senator Whitehouse was not fooled or amused, responding, “This is nobody’s first rodeo here.”  Translation: Give me a break, lobbyists for the chemical industry (not to mention the oil industry, the coal industry, the auto industry, and every other industry) have probably written more legislation than all the members of Congress combined. 

A more straightforward and honest response from Mr. Dooley probably would have been something like: we hate the Lautenberg bill, and we don’t really want to work with Senator Lautenberg, and although we have been putting out statements for 3 years saying we support TSCA reform, we actually are just trying to run the clock to the end of next year – as we have been doing since 2009 -- when we hope that the Republicans will take over the majority in the Senate, effectively putting any notion of TSCA reform to bed,  hopefully forever.  

The evasion -- and perhaps the attitude -- did not sit well with the Senators. Immediately after the hearing, industry reps went into damage control mode claiming Mr. Dooley had been “ambushed” and alleged a conspiracy by Senators, their staff, and Safer Chemicals Healthy Families to “make Cal look bad.”  There was no ambush; there was only a small measure of public accountability.  And public accountability – for itself and for members of Congress -- is anathema to the chemical industry. That’s why the industry will use (or manufacture) any lame excuse – “they asked mean questions!”-- as a pretext to shift blame, deter bi-partisanship, prevent progress, and undermine efforts to move the legislation forward.

The Safe Chemicals Act would finally make the industry accountable for the safety of its products. The fundamental failure of the current law is that no such accountability exists. For good reason, the chemical industry fears a recorded vote in the U.S. Senate on the Safe Chemicals Act.  They know that the overwhelming public desire for increased protection from toxic chemicals will make it impossible for many Senators, probably more than 60, to oppose the Safe Chemicals Act.

The chemical industry cannot dodge its responsibility forever.  But, based on the recent hearing and its immediate aftermath, it looks like it’s going to try.