CHEMICALS:

Obama admin steps up pressure to ratify treaties on toxics

The Obama administration is renewing the long-running effort to win U.S. ratification of two international treaties aimed at limiting the reach of the world's most toxic chemicals.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent, which took effect in 2004, empower countries to curb the importation and production of toxics deemed especially high risk. But official U.S. entry into the treaties requires Senate approval as well as a vote in both chambers on tweaks to two major environmental laws -- implementing language that is currently tied up in the broader debate over reforming federal chemicals policy.

At a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday organized by the Senate's leading voice for stronger toxics rules, Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), officials from U.S. EPA and the State Department urged lawmakers to speed the passage of implementing legislation and give the administration a seat at the table for future global chemicals talks.

"It is a problem that we are not party to" the Stockholm and Rotterdam pacts, said Dan Reifsnyder, State's deputy assistant secretary for environment and sustainable development.

Reifsnyder's ability to play a role in other signatory nations' decisionmaking is hobbled by the lack of U.S. ratification, he explained. "I felt like Oliver Twist" during a 2006 meeting on the Stockholm treaty, he quipped, forced to take a subordinate role akin to "'Please, sir, may I have some more?' After they recognized Greenpeace, they got to me, the U.S. of A. It's not a great way to influence things."

The Stockholm pact originally restricted 12 chemicals classified as POPs -- and nicknamed the "Dirty Dozen" -- due to their propensity to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain far beyond national boundaries. That group, which included DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), was joined last month by nine new toxics that will be subject to limits on intentional manufacture and unintentional releases in all signatory nations (Greenwire, Aug. 20).

James Jones, deputy assistant administrator of EPA's toxic substances office, noted that the United States has qualms about the scope of pending proposals to regulate two new chemicals under Stockholm but would be unable to significantly weigh in on those plans without congressional ratification of the treaty.

"When the U.S. has its science at the table, its voice at table, the likelihood of errors are reduced," Jones said at the briefing. "We have the potential of bringing sound science and transparency to these issues that matter."

Donald Cooper, executive secretary of the Stockholm treaty and co-executive director of the Rotterdam treaty, explained in an interview that each nation's motivations and mechanisms for joining the agreements differ based on their cultural and industrial needs. The framework for implementing the chemicals pacts are flexible, he said, and depend on the "conditions that prevail in the country that chooses to get the benefits" of signing on.

Political hurdles

Still, the road to ratification has proved rockier than might be expected given the treaties' broadly nonpartisan reputation. The George W. Bush administration supported their approval, and chemical industry groups have long echoed calls for congressional action, but the necessary legislative changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) have proved more difficult to snake through Congress.

House Republicans won committee passage of bills amending TSCA and FIFRA in the weeks before their 2006 loss of congressional control, but both bills failed to reach a floor vote despite backing from the chemical industry and drew withering criticism from Democrats and environmental groups (E&E Daily, Sept. 20, 2006).

The GOP's proposed changes were blasted for replacing the Stockholm treaty's health-based standard for evaluating hazards with a cost-benefit analysis and added EPA review that advocates argued would effectively forestall U.S. regulation of POPs. But Republicans and industry groups remain wary of implementing language that would limit EPA's ability to grant exemptions for continued use or gradual phase-out of individual POPs.

"We need to recognize the nuances of the science and give importance to exposure and risk data, not just hazards," said Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's trade panel, during a March hearing on TSCA changes necessary for Stockholm ratification.

Implementing language for the Stockholm treaty is currently part of the broader TSCA reform bills sponsored by Lautenberg, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). But the fate of those measures -- which would give EPA strong new authorities to regulate toxics and ask manufacturers to prove the safety of new chemicals before bringing them to market -- remains far from clear amid GOP and industry resistance and signs of a perilous political environment for Democrats.

In the meantime, the United Nations Environment Program, which supervises both the Stockholm and Rotterdam pacts, is supporting separate movement of implementing legislation in the interest of quicker U.S. ratification. "As a leading user of chemicals, the U.S. can play a leading role" in shaping the treaties' future, Cooper said. "It can ensure, through participation, a level playing field for its industry."

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