HARTFORD, Conn. — In the bare-knuckle war over toxic chemicals, the fight between industry and activists has shifted noticeably from Washington, D.C., to state venues such as the golden-domed Capitol that rises over Hartford like a lordly manse.
What happened this year in Hartford shows how industry — fueled by the American Chemistry Council, a $100 million a year advocacy group glittered with Fortune 500 partners — is flexing its muscles from statehouse to statehouse to beat back efforts to disclose harmful chemicals or remove them from the shelves.
In Connecticut, grassroots activists worked with state Rep. Diana Urban, a former professor of economics and politics, to craft a bill they viewed as little more than a baby step toward reform. The measure — An Act Concerning Children’s Products and Chemicals of High Concern — would have allowed the state Public Health Department to identify and list chemicals that posed dangers to children. –>
The bill came at zero cost to state government.
This session, it was snuffed out by an aggressive lobbying push from the ACC and state business groups, and an outcry from Republican members portraying the bill as an attack on business and duplication of federal efforts. Urban couldn’t even get it to a vote — legislative critics literally talked the three-page bill to death for more than four hours one afternoon, killing it on an appropriations deadline day with question after question that kept the clock ticking to zero.
“It would have been, honestly, a very small first step,” said Anne Hulick, coordinator for the nonprofit Coalition for a Safe & Healthy Connecticut. “The bill we were proposing was not revolutionary. All it was, was a report. Even that — even a report every two years — was something that was very unpalatable to them.”
Her organization has an annual budget of $100,000 — one thousandth of the ACC’s — funding one full-time employee, one part-timer and support for other nonprofits. On the last day of session in June, Hulick found herself literally surrounded by industry lobbyists as she grabbed coffee in the legislative cafeteria, accidentally taking a seat normally filled by an ACC lobbyist and then, after moving, having a toy industry lobbyist sit at the next table. She stepped outside to talk with a journalist.
“I’m pretty beaten down,” Hulick admitted. “Our primary goal was in protecting children’s health. I don’t think we ever got the opportunity to see that.”
For the American Chemistry Council, it was another in a string of victories in state houses from Maine to Washington state — and part of a vigorous campaign to smother toxics reform bills filed in states fed up with logjams at the Environmental Protection Agency. Connecticut is just one snapshot of a larger picture in state capitals across the U.S., a Center for Public Integrity examination found.
“It’s becoming the new battleground for a lot of this work,” said Steve Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a nonprofit headquartered in Falls Church, Va., and founded by Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs.
Defeating state bills ranks among the ACC’s notable accomplishments, the group’s tax returns say.
The ACC “helped defeat, amend or postpone the passage of more than 300 flawed bills dealing with chemicals and plastics in 44 states,” the organization said in its tax return for 2010, echoing its other Form 990 reports.
The chemistry council doesn’t shy away from — or apologize for — its lobbying efforts.
“We’re an advocacy organization,” said spokesman Scott Openshaw. “We’re in business to advocate for our industry to ensure that public policy is balanced and formulated in the right way for all Americans, and for the value of our industry to ensure that we can continue to be a global leader. That’s what we do. We advocate for our members.”
The ACC’s influence sometimes reaches deep into the fine print of state rules, the Center found.
In Iowa, a legislator proposed a resolution urging Congress to crack down on dangerous chemicals — only to see his measure diluted to mirror, nearly word for word, the ACC’s own model legislation before being killed. That ACC model, targeting reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, says a “robust” federal system precludes the need for state laws that could trigger “negative impacts on the national economy.” The ACC model has been introduced in at least five other statehouses from New Jersey to Oregon, the Center found by analyzing a Sunlight Foundation database of bills.
When the Council of State Governments met for a conference on product safety last year, the session was sponsored by ACC member Procter & Gamble at its Cincinnati headquarters, with industry scientists leading talks.
From city halls to state houses, the ACC sometimes maintains strikingly close ties to political power. In Baltimore, where the chemistry council helped delay a potential city ban on Styrofoam cups and containers, the mayor officiated at the wedding of an ACC lobbyist.
In Maine, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, Patricia Aho, was an ACC lobbyist before taking office in 2011. In the 2011-12 session, Aho registered as the ACC’s principal lobbyist on 10 different bills before her ascension to state office, records show. Her support for the organization is clear.
“The ACC represents the companies that make the products that make modern life possible, while working to protect the environment, public health, and the security of our nation,” said Aho’s lobbyist registration form for 2010. Aho declined an interview request from the Center, but her office said any potential conflicts were “thoroughly vetted” before she took office.
The ACC and its allies, Lester said, use their resources to build doubt over claims that company products cause harm. “That’s what they’re good at, creating this element of doubt, questioning our science, our speakers, our information,” Lester said. “They see these rules are making progress, and I think they are feeling threatened.”
Big money, big connections — and results
The American Chemistry Council has resources to push back, representing members such as Dow, Procter & Gamble Chemicals Division and ExxonMobil Chemical Company, and listing annual revenue from $100 million to $135 million in recent years.
The ACC spends $8 million to $10 million a year in annual federal lobbying, and raised nearly half a million dollars in recent election cycles supporting federal campaigns. Over the last decade it has backed candidates of both parties, but more often favored Republicans over Democrats. Yet the industry’s financial muscle is many times greater, as those figures represent just ACC contributions. From 2005 through part of 2012, the chemical industry “gave $39 million to candidates for federal office” and “spent $333 million on lobbying at the federal level,” a Common Cause report noted.
In waging state campaigns, the D.C.-based group retains statehouse lobbyists to fight bills from Maine to Connecticut, from Iowa to Minnesota, Oregon to Washington state.
In the states, the ACC has developed a playbook that is at once boilerplate and effective: Convincing decision-makers that bills aimed at identifying, and potentially banning, chemicals would only kill businesses. And, stressing that state bills would merely duplicate federal efforts and add layers of government.
“The chemical industry keeps their message simple. Chemicals: Good. Business: Good. Banning chemicals: Bad,” said Connecticut’s Urban, who witnessed that success first-hand this session.
In killing bills from coast to coast, legislative critics sometimes echo power points developed by the ACC and its lobbyists. “It’s an onslaught,” said Urban, a Democrat. “It’s very hard for me to fight that. You go into a committee and they’re out here grabbing legislators one after another.”
In Washington state, the ACC helped kill the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act. The 2013 bill would have banned two toxic flame retardants from children’s products and furniture — and prevented manufacturers from replacing them with retardants identified by the state Department of Ecology “as a high priority chemical of high concern for children.” The bill was weakened in the Senate to ban retardants already being phased out by industry — but failing to grant the larger state powers. Then, as supporters tried to revive the original measure, it died.
“They do an all-out confrontation when these bills are drawn up,” said state Sen. Sharon Nelson, a Washington state Democrat. “They nitpick. ‘This isn’t quite ready. We are not quite there.’ So they just delay, delay, delay.”
In Oregon this session, the ACC helped defeat a bill that would have allowed the Oregon Health Authority to maintain a list of “high priority chemicals of concern for children’s health.” The bill remained deadlocked in the Senate, 15-15, in the session’s final day. “We never got a commitment from a 16th person, so it was not heard in the Senate,” said Democratic Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, a co-sponsor. “I was really disappointed.”
In Maine, the bill Aho’s office fought — An Act To Further Strengthen the Protection of Pregnant Women and Children from Toxic Chemicals — was also watered down before winning approval, with the ACC among the critics pushing back. The initial bill would have identified products using the 49 “worst of the worst” chemicals and sought to remove them from reaching children. The final version would have effectively required $1 billion companies to disclose their use of Bisphenol A (BPA) — a chemical that some studies suggest can impact the brain and behavior of children — in food packaging.
Then, in July, Gov. Paul LePage, who appointed Aho as commissioner, vetoed the bill over the objections of protesting parents.
D.C. red tape prompts states to act
The tussle in the states is fallout from the slug-like pace of reform in Washington, D.C., embodied by the Toxic Substances Control Act. TSCA was passed in 1976, granting the EPA power to require testing of dangerous compounds. But in the nearly four decades since, the EPA has rarely used that power — and for years has been tied up in a protracted effort to update TSCA.
“We’re not getting much leadership at the federal level,” said North Carolina Rep. Pricey Harrison, who has attempted reform efforts in her state for six years. “It’s a little bit frightening to think there are 80,000 chemicals out there in commerce that haven’t been studied. It’s frustrating for those of us who have public health as a priority to have the lack of leadership in the federal level, so we need to do it in the states.”
In state after state, officials echoed Harrison: The federal government is stuck in time, forcing states to act. The Government Accountability Office has also raised questions about the pace of EPA reform. Even with some changes, “it is unclear whether EPA’s new approach to managing chemicals will position the agency to achieve its goal of ensuring the safety of chemicals,” the GAO concluded in June.
The EPA reports modest progress under TSCA: Under the act, the agency said, it has “only been able to require testing on a little more than 200 existing chemicals,” and banned five.
In September 2009, the EPA announced a set of principles to “update and strengthen” TSCA. “Restoring confidence in EPA’s existing chemicals chemical management program is a priority for EPA and the Administration,” the agency said in a statement, saying it aims to “modernize and strengthen the tools available in TSCA to increase confidence that chemicals used in commerce, which are vital to our Nation’s economy, are safe and do not endanger the public health.”
Yet in large measure, the ACC is fighting both the states — and the feds. Even as it tells the states to leave the job to Washington, the chemistry council has attacked the fine print of some proposals to reform TSCA.
The group, for instance, cited “fundamental flaws” in legislative proposals to strengthen the act. In a November 2011 press release titled “ACC Expresses Concern with Safe Chemicals Act,” the group wrote: “We believe we can develop legislation that will give consumers confidence, learns from the success and missteps of reforms undertaken by other countries, and fosters innovation and job creation.”
Meanwhile, to states, the chemistry council cites “EPA’s Actions to Strengthen the Chemical Management Safety Net,” as the group wrote in correspondence opposing Connecticut’s bill. “ACC urges this committee to consider this information and, in light of it, to ask itself whether HB 6526 is even necessary and whether it would provide significant public health benefit to the children of Connecticut.”
It’s an argument the ACC had made elsewhere — providing fuel for legislative critics to douse state bills.
The chemistry council is not in conflict by challenging both states and Washington, spokesman Openshaw said. Instead, he said, the ACC supports tangible reform to TSCA through the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, one of the last bills filed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the venerable New Jersey Democrat who died earlier this year.
“Our No.1 priority is to see the Toxic Substances Control Act, the national law that regulates chemicals in commerce, we want to see that reformed. It’s time to do that now,” Openshaw said. “It’s an approach that will benefit all states when it comes to ensuring the safety of chemicals for consumers and workers and also ensuring that the U.S. remains a leader in innovation around the globe.”
The chemistry council’s model plan said consumers should have confidence the products they buy are safe — and that federal rules should “preserve America’s role as the world’s leading innovator and employer” in the chemical field.
While Lautenberg’s bill has gained momentum and awaits congressional hearings, some environmental groups and states worry that the measure — cemented after compromise with critics — could weaken standards in some instances. The ACC said it strikes the right balance. “It was the first time in 40 years we actually have a bipartisan approach to reform TSCA,” Openshaw said.
From Washington to the states, the ACC makes one thing clear: It supports reform — but only on its terms.
Iowa: The ACC lends a hand
In Iowa, Representative Charles Isenhart filed a proposed resolution in 2011 that would have prodded Congress to mandate reforms to TSCA, “the only major federal environmental statute that has never been updated or reauthorized,” his proposal said.
“There was not an effort at the national level to address these issues in a meaningful way in Washington, so some of us … decided to take a run at those issues,” Isenhart said in an interview.
His resolution included strong language, saying “children and developing fetuses are uniquely vulnerable to the health threats of toxic chemicals,” and noting that “a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence links exposure to toxic chemicals to many diseases and health conditions.” The General Assembly resolution would have put the onus on chemical manufacturers to “prove that all existing and new chemicals are not harmful to human health.”
“The toxics resolution in particular was opposed by the American Chemistry Council,” Isenhart wrote the Center.
When his resolution came out of Iowa’s Committee on Commerce, it was noticeably altered. Gone was language citing chemical dangers to children and fetuses. Gone was language forcing industry to prove its chemicals weren’t harmful.
Instead, the substituted language adopted a clear concern for industry. It said the EPA’s chemical management program “should preserve the role of the United States as the world’s leading innovator and employer in the manufacture, processing, distribution, and use of chemicals.” Federal reforms “should encourage companies and the EPA to work together to enhance public access to chemical health and safety information.”
The substitute language mirrors, nearly verbatim, the ACC’s model TSCA legislation.
What happened? Isenhart said the commerce committee member assigned the legislation, Republican Rep. Ralph Watts, introduced the ACC language. State legislative records show an ACC lobbyist, John Easter, registered as “for” the final version, after originally registered as “undecided.”
Isenhart said he tried to change the language back, but to no avail. The resolution never came for a vote. “The bill was dead,” he said. “They weren’t interested in having a debate. I have a feeling Representative Watts just wanted to curry favor with the chemistry council, taking their language.”
The initial proposal was “totally unacceptable,” Rep. Watts countered in an interview. “As I recall, the proposal that Representative Isenhart made went way too far in adding more toxicity regulations,” he said.
Initially, Watts said he didn’t recall the ACC playing a role. Told lobbyist Easter registered on the item, Watts said: “As I recall John might have offered some suggestions on the bill, on the resolution.”
Lobbyist Easter, reached in August, said he was at lunch and couldn’t talk. He later said his office was preparing a statement, but the office did not follow up.
Iowa’s experience was not unique. The ACC model was introduced in state houses in Oregon, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, Michigan and Texas — and adopted, in some form, in Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois but not in other states, the Center found.
In Iowa, several other toxic reform bills failed to move forward in recent sessions, an environmental health legislation database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows. “Iowa is an Ag economy,” Rep. Watts said. “We’re sensitive to over-regulation that sometimes is proposed that is damaging to industry and has no sound science background.”
How much sway does the chemistry council hold in the state? “I think probably people will listen to them, just like a lot of other lobbyists,” Watts said. “We listen to lobbyists of all stripes. Some we agree with; some we don’t.”
Maine: ACC lobbyist-turned-environmental chief
In Maine, the ACC’s connection to the top is decidedly direct: The state’s environmental chief was, until her arrival to the Maine department in 2011, a registered ACC lobbyist.
Lawyer Patricia Aho was the principal lobbyist for the ACC on multiple bills in the 2011 session, her filings show, after representing the chemistry council and other clients for years. Among the bills she registered on behalf of the ACC in the 2011-12 session:
- An Act To Ensure That Children’s Products Are Free of Cadmium
- An Act To Provide the Department of Environmental Protection with Regulatory Flexibility Regarding the Listing of Priority Chemicals
- An Act To Amend the Process for Prioritizing Toxic Chemicals in Children’s Products
Aho joined the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in early 2011; that September, Gov. LePage named her commissioner. Aho has long touted her connection to business. Her official bio on the governor’s website, for instance, notes that the Kennebec County Chamber of Commerce honored her “advocacy on behalf of the business community.”
Under her watch, Maine has been slow to adopt toxics reform.
This session, the ACC was among organizations opposing the proposal to “further strengthen” protections for pregnant women and children from chemicals. In filings to the state, the ACC cited TSCA reform as one reason the bill was not needed. “In sum, TSCA’s New Chemicals program is considered one of TSCA’s major regulatory successes,” the organization wrote.
As it had in Connecticut, the ACC asked whether the proposal was “even necessary and whether it would have any public health benefit to the children of Maine.”
Advocates were trying to build upon earlier progress. Already, Maine had adopted a list of 49 chemicals of high concern, making it one of the few states to publicize such a list. But, heading into the 2013 session, supporters said, the state had not taken steps to remove products tainted with those same toxins.
“The bill will identify which products contain the 49 ‘worst of the worst’ chemicals and set priorities for action to get those chemicals out of household products that Maine children encounter every day,” wrote the Maine Conservation Voters. The bill would have pushed the state DEP to each year prioritize two chemicals — from the 49 — and set about studying alternatives to replace them.
With the ACC and business leaders fighting the bill, it was seriously scaled back.
By session’s end, the bill was narrowed to effectively require companies with $1 billion in annual sales to disclose their use of BPA in food packaging. But it would not require the state to keep adding high priority chemicals to the list.
“There was a clear shift … to more of a transparency bill, but it’s important that we make progress,” said the bill sponsor, then-Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall. “And in the current climate here in Maine we had to be realists and pragmatic and move forward.”
Aho’s department had voiced objections, damaging the bill’s chances.
“This bill is complex and includes many interwoven components that would greatly expand the reach of the current program, the consequence of which would be a big government program focused on churning out rules and processing paperwork, rather than engaging in meaningful analysis and informed decision-making,” a DEP director testified in April.
Three months later, the governor vetoed it.
Aho’s revolving door from industry lobbyist to state regulator drew scrutiny in a recent series in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, entitled “The Lobbyist in the Henhouse.” It described how environmental regulation and enforcement has slowed considerably under her watch.
The Center for Public Integrity, exploring Aho’s dual roles, sought an interview with the commissioner. Aho declined the request, but a spokeswoman said Aho had been an attorney in Maine since 1982, practicing government and regulatory affairs.
“And her background is no different than many other attorneys who have or are serving in agencies or departments in the state of Maine,” said the statement from DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan. “And any questions about her potential conflicts of interest were thoroughly vetted when she joined state government over two years ago and later during her confirmation process as commissioner, where she was confirmed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, 35-0.”
The attention over her dual roles triggered a firestorm, with the Sierra Club pressing Republican Gov. LePage to oust her. LePage’s anger, instead, turned toward the press — not his director, who remains in office.
Following the critical reports, Aho dispatched an email to staffers in June, with the subject line ‘Welcome to Summer.’ It said the agency was moving to protect Maine’s natural environment. “I remain committed to taking my responsibilities of environmental stewardship seriously and am proud that our DEP is a resourceful, respectful, and responsive agency,” she wrote.
Aho added, “The protection of our environment and natural resources and a robust economy do not have to conflict.”
Beth Ahearn, political director for the Maine Conservation Voters, said Aho had been respected as a lobbyist for being reasonable to deal with and having “a lot of integrity.”
But her rise to the top environmental post raises larger questions.
“How do we separate our background from the decisions we make? And that’s a tougher question,” Ahearn said in an interview. “Obviously she knows those companies or worked with those companies really well, and has that perspective, the company’s perspective.
“We want the commissioner of environmental protection to be all about environmental protection.”
Reform bills filed — and fought—from Florida to Washington state
Across the country, a pattern has emerged: State officials pitch proposals to identify and potentially ban toxic chemicals, grassroots groups rally behind the proposals — and the bills die in committee or get watered down, with the ACC, business groups and legislative critics pushing back.
To many, Washington state is a leader in toxics reform. The state adopted a “Chemicals of High Concern to Children” list — 66 chemicals from formaldehyde to benzene to BPA the state considers potentially hazardous. Other states have tried to follow suit and create their own lists — the first step, advocates say, in ultimately removing products that can sicken children.
This session in Washington state, advocates filed the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act, a bill aimed at banning two forms of toxic flame retardants from reaching children — and barring manufacturers from replacing them with similarly dangerous products. Even there, the larger reform butted up against opposition.
“The main opposition is the American Chemistry Council. It’s a well-funded, well organized force and they are able to come in, organize in-state business and out-of-state businesses — Wal-Mart and Target come to mind,” said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, with the nonprofit Washington Toxics Coalition. Opponents are “able to sow enough doubt in legislators’ minds that some put the brakes on this type of legislation.”
“The ACC and their allies,” she added, “their main tactic is to delay any meaningful reform.”
In the Senate, the bill was weakened to target only products already being phased out. It failed to revive in the House and died entirely, said bill co-sponsor Sen. Nelson.
“Once again the chemical industry won the fight in Washington state,” Nelson said in August. “We had the chemical industry and Association of Washington Business, the usual suspects, sitting in the gallery making sure once again protections for children die in the state.”
Lobbyist Mark Greenberg, who represents the ACC in Washington state, routed a Center interview request to the chemistry council. The AWB, the state’s “premiere advocate for the business community,” said it pushes an economic climate benefiting “all citizens.”
Nelson, trying for three years to adopt the change, said she won’t give up. “I’m a mom and I’m going to be a grandma possibly this week,” she had said in May. “It just makes me more committed to have something that is this clear that we need to ban. To have corporate interests continue to try to roll us on it makes me more committed to wanting to get it done.”
In Oregon this session, House Bill 3162 would have required the state to list “high priority chemicals of concern” present in children’s products from car seats to toys, jewelry and pacifiers. Under the initial bill, manufacturers would have to disclose if they used potentially toxic chemicals, and then phase them out in certain products.
Bill co-sponsor Keny-Guyer said she targets public health issues involving women and children. “I’m also very concerned about toxics in our environment, because we’ve had an explosion in chemical development over the decades, and our regulatory system has not kept up,” she said.
She quickly encountered resistance. In public hearings, the ACC and Toy Industry Association squared off against bill public health backers including Oregon nurses. “The American Chemistry Council, the Toy Association of America, the Associated Oregon Industries, Procter & Gamble, the pulp and paper industry, the International Fragrance Association … have all opposed the bill and they are putting up a really pretty big fight,” Keny-Guyer said in June, with the bill still in play.
“Their arguments are it’s a slippery slope, they think it’s an undue burden on business, and it should be done at the federal level.” Her reply: “The feds have not kept up with the development of chemicals and are not adequately addressing this.”
By session’s end the next month, the bill never made it to the Senate for a vote — even as sponsors scrambled to save the measure by cutting out some elements. “In order to try to gain support in the Senate, we pared back the bill,” said Keny-Guyer. “The amendment was to take out the entire phase-out piece and only have disclosure. And even that could not get the 16th vote.”
Industry pushback, she said, doomed it. “I mean they brought in lobbyists in the end who kind of banded together and fought it tooth and nail,” the representative said.
In other states, some legislators are finding it hard to muster enthusiasm reforms will ever take root.
In Texas, Rep. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, tried for three years to push a bill banning the sale of children’s products containing “bisphenol-A or certain other substances identified as known human carcinogens or banned hazardous substances.” BPA is an industrial chemical found in plastic bottles and metal cans that federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, say have “potential effects … on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.”
Alvarado’s proposals never came for a vote. “I wasn’t surprised,” Alvarado said, knowing politics in Texas. “With these type of issues you keep pressing and moving forward, you can’t get bogged down. … You have to keep it moving forward and hopefully get some public discussion going on.”
In Florida, Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa, co-sponsored a bill this session to identify chemicals of high concern. The idea was to let consumers know which products contain potentially toxic chemicals, with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection posting the information online.
As in Texas, his bill never came for a vote — one of a string of toxic reform bills extinguished in the Sunshine State, the state legislative database shows.
“My bill got absolutely no traction whatsoever. People took notice of it, said ‘nice bill.’ I could not even get it to its first committee. Never even saw the light of day,” Danish said in an interview.
After he proposed the bill, he said, Florida’s agricultural industry called a meeting, worried he was targeting pesticides. Danish said he tried to calm nerves by saying he aspired only to inform the public about household chemicals of potential concern to pregnant women and children. No matter. The bill did not move forward — the victim, he believes, of legislative pushback against new regulations, along with resistance in the Republican controlled House to bills pitched by Democrats.
“It was kind of a shame, because I thought it was a good bill,” Danish said.
In North Carolina, Democratic Rep. Harrison proposed the Toxic Free Kids Act this session. Its aim: Protecting children “from harmful chemicals in their toys, furniture, car seats and other products that children touch, lick, inhale and snuggle up with every day,” advocates said.
It, too, failed to come for a vote, but instead was deemed by the House Commerce Committee to be a “study bill,” meaning it was going back for more study and could return next year.
“This is a legislature that’s highly anti-regulatory and there’s very little support for enacting stricter regulations on anything. This time around we had a Republican lead sponsor, we recruited a couple of Republicans to be on the bill,” Harrison said. “But unfortunately we couldn’t get the bill moved into the session, so we turned it into a study.
“I’ve been trying to get this issue studied forever.”
In other states, some reform measures have moved forward — after compromise with industry.
In Minnesota, State Sen. Katie Sieben helped sponsor a bill this session that bans BPA in toddler and infant food. It passed.
“It certainly took some negotiating with industry. One thing that helped was that BPA was already banned in Minnesota in sippy cups, and we were the first state in the nation to do that,” Sieben said in July, a baby bouncing on her lap during a phone interview. “And there are manufacturers who produce baby food without BPA in it, so there was a viable and known alternative.”
The final version was scaled back from an earlier proposal, which could have applied to any food targeted to children, to focus solely on toddler and infant food and formula. “There was a lot of pushback from food manufacturers. ‘It was too sweeping. Anything could be defined as children’s product,’ ” Sieben said. “Ultimately we had to take a more measured approach.”
Connecticut: ‘Baby step’ bill falls flat
In Connecticut, advocates thought they, too, had taken a measured approach.
Their bill, they thought, was simple: An Act Concerning Children’s Products and Chemicals of High Concern. Initially the bill would have followed the leads of Washington state and Maine, which already compile lists of chemicals of high concern. Citing states that had made strides in toxic reform struck some the wrong way in Connecticut.
“When we reference the list in Maine and Washington, the minute we reference those lists it becomes a huge red flag with industry,” said Urban, who later deleted reference to the states and scaled the bill back to simply allow the state to compile a list, every two years, of potentially harmful chemicals. It was crafted so it would not cost the state a penny.
Critics, led by the ACC, turned the conversation away from the potential harm to kids to the potential harm to Connecticut businesses, portraying the bill as an intrusion by state government into a job already held by the feds.
“They can’t win on science,” said Hulick, of the Connecticut advocacy group. “It became not about the health of kids. Somehow, that became second.”
She added, “Obviously, they are afraid of something.”
And opponents put lobbyists into play in a state with 187 legislators and more than 1,000 registered lobbyists. “The lobbyists for the toy and chemical industry are much better funded,” said Noele Kidney, project coordinator for the Connecticut Public Health Association. “They have a huge presence here, all day long, every day.”
Hughes & Cronin, “Connecticut’s Oldest Contract Lobbying Firm,” represents the ACC in the state. Founder Carroll J. Hughes did not respond to a July interview request. The ACC said its lobbying push is centered on supporting change at the federal level — change it said would aid the states.
For bill advocates, the low point was a four-hour hearing before the Connecticut Appropriations Committee April 23 — the deadline day for the committee to move bills forward. In a hearing room filled with mostly empty chairs, Urban opened with a brief overview.
“The purpose behind this bill,” she said, is to “start to get a handle on what kind of chemicals are out there that might be a problem for our children.”
Republican opponents didn’t see it that way, probing the three-page bill for hours —sometimes asking Urban to define words in the proposal, or explain how it compared with practices in Europe. Critics pitched their own amendments, each one triggering more questions — and more delay. Seventeen Republican critics took turns picking the bill apart word by word.
Twice, legislators invoked the ACC by name in challenging the proposal. Several echoed the chemistry council’s chief argument, saying the EPA was already on the case.
“I know the implications and the harm that come to commerce when we as a state start to nitpick into issues that very frankly we are not the ultimate authorities in. We should leave this to the EPA,” said Republican Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, citing “very, very deep concerns.”
Connecticut businesses “are not feeling reassured by the openness of our state government to doing everything possible to make it easy to do business in this state. In fact, quite the contrary,” said Republican Rep. Gail Lavielle, who asked, among other questions, how the word ‘biological’ was used as a noun, and for the definition of ‘polyester resins.’
Lavielle did not respond to an interview request. During the hearing, she said her multiple questions were necessary “due diligence” for a measure drawing supporters and detractors.
“We’re just putting too many restrictions on businesses,” added Republican Rep. Jay Case. “From what our governor tells us, we are open for business and we need to keep the tax rolls coming in.”
Nearing hour four, Republican Rep. Al Adinolfi noted that the proposed list could include chemicals of high concern “after considering a child’s or developing fetus’ potential for exposure.”
He asked: “Now, what would be the definition of developing fetus?”
Urban, taken aback, replied: “I’m not the person to make a definition of what is or is not a fetus.”
“Many of us believe that a fetus is formed immediately after conception,” Adinolfi continued. “So does that mean if this bill becomes real … that when these lists are given to us by these commissions … that we can amend that and add the morning after pill as not legal?” Adinolfi, rehabbing from surgery, was not available for comment, his office said.
Urban became flustered at times — “Madam chair, I believe that we are really getting into minutiae at this point,” she said after the first wave of questions from a half dozen legislators — and focused at others, trying to shift discussion to the bill’s focus. “This is the first baby step toward protecting our children and getting a handle on these chemicals” that could be carcinogenic, she said as the final minutes ticked away. “It’s merely creating a list.”
In a statehouse controlled by Democrats, Republican critics held sway that day. At hearing’s end, with continuous criticism of a “one-sided” bill opponents said gave industry no voice, the gavel was pounded. Discussion over, bill dead. Another victory for the ACC. “It was a filibuster,” Urban said later. “It was very clear they were killing the bill. They decided to talk it until 5 o’clock.”
Republican State Sen. Rob Kane, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, was among opponents holding the floor with amendments, questions and more amendments. In an interview on the session’s last day in Hartford, Kane said the intent was not purposeful delay, but to drill down into the bill’s particulars.
“We have a great deal of questions with regard to the policy, the science and the economic impact,” he said, noting that “proponents of the bill certainly are in the majority of both houses.”
Why did the committee spend so much time focused on the impact to businesses? “That’s because it was the appropriations committee,” Kane said, where the focus is on finances. “Anytime you add more hurdles, it makes it more and more difficult for businesses.”
Legislators’ fear over toxics reform could be felt in other bills, too. This session, Connecticut pushed a bill creating a Mental Health Task Force to deal with emotional issues following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. Among other issues, the task force will study the impact of nutrients, genetics and psychotropic drugs on the mental health of children.
Urban, one of the bill’s prime backers, said she initially included the phrase “environmental toxins” among the issues to be studied. She said the leadership told her to strike the phrase. Initially enraged, she said she closed the door for 30 minutes by herself “and used four-letter words as a stress reliever.” Then she looked at the “greater good” — a measure to help children.
That bill passed. Her toxics bill did not. “It’s dead,” Urban said in the exhaustion of the session’s final day. “Night, night. Bye, bye.”
The bill died even though the Connecticut Department of Public Health supported the final version, which came at no cost to state government.
“The legislation could have helped the Legislature understand what our research is showing, and opened communication a little bit more in this area,” said Gary Ginsberg, a state toxicologist. “So I think it’s a loss in that regard that the Legislature doesn’t have that automated reporting mandated. But there are other ways for us to get our message out to the public.”
When she crafts a bill, Urban said, she is mindful of how industry and critics will attack. So she wrote a bill targeting the most vulnerable. “And I’m thinking, how do you say no to babies?” she asked, in an interview at the Capitol. “But guess what? They were able to say no to babies.”
Visibly worn, Urban admitted she “didn’t realize the extent of their negativity early enough.”
She has learned, she said, that critics engage in what she calls “The Ali Rope-A-Dope” — bobbing and weaving, doing anything to avoid a hit, just as heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali used rope-a-dope to frustrate foes in the ring.
“It’s rope-a-dope, and I know it’s rope-a-dope.”
She sighed. “I don’t know how to get this done just yet. But I will.”
Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.