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Green and Switch

Last-minute back-room meetings derailed California's Green Chemistry Initiative

Green ChemistryBack in 2008, everyone cheered when California's Governor Schwartznegger signed two bills (AB 1879 and SB 509) known collectively as the Green Chemistry Initiative. Dozens of environmental and public health nonprofits set to work laboring alongside state representatives over the course of two years to craft regulations that would tighten oversight of the 80,000-odd chemicals on the market (currently only 1500 are regulated). Physicians for Social Responsibility joined with the Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and several other groups in a collaborative prcess that resulted in the "final" regulations released in September for a 45-day formal comment period.

Last month, those groups were blindsided when Governor Schwartzneger released revised regulations that beared little resemblance to those drafted over the past two years. Just two weeks after the formal comment period closed, the California Department of Toxics Substances Control (DTSC) issued a revised set of regulations that essentially gutted the Green Chemistry program. The changes were made without input from the public or even the Green Ribbon Science Panel, which the laws established to advise DTSC in developing the regulations. What’s more, they have given the public only 15 days to comment on the latest draft, a time period that included the Thanksgiving holiday.

"AB 1879 grants DTSC the authority to establish a systematic process for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern in consumer products and using alternatives assessment to guide the selection of safer substitutes,"  Megan R. Schwarzman, MD, MPH Associate Director of Health and Environment, Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry wrote in a letter to the agency. "Yet the revised regulations—if adopted as written—fail to implement this authority and would not achieve their most basic goal: to promote the development and adoption of safer chemicals, products and manufacturing processes, according to the principles of green chemistry."

Not only do the revised regulations fail to achieve the Initiative's goal of regulating toxics, according to Schwarzman they actually undermine the California Environmental Protection Agency's ability to better regulate toxics. The general consensus is that business interests with an economic incentive to keep toxics unregulated swooped in at the last minute and managed to gut the regulations.

"If the new last-minute regulations go into effect without being fundamentally overhauled, Californians will actually be worse off than before," says Renee Sharp, California Director of the Environmental Working Group. "Some state legislators could point to the inept program as an excuse not to get involved in the issue of toxic chemicals, and state regulators would have their hands tied in knots by a program that is structured to spin wheels and eventually fail."

Despite his attempts to build a legacy as a "green" governor, Schwartzenegger appears to be spending his last days in office undoing much of the good environmental work he did during his time in office.

"We are very disappointed with Gov. Schwarzenegger and his pandering to the chemical industry. His legacy will continue to be that of an actor rather than an actual governor," Jan Robinson Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness, told LA Weekly. "The Green Chemistry Initiative had the potential of protecting the people of California and promoting green jobs and products, but obviously his concern is not with our community."


Amy Westervelt, Journalist
The former Managing Editor of the Journal, Amy is associate editor for The Faster Times and This Week in Earth, a columnist for Forbes, and contributes to an assortment of other magazines and websites. In 2007, Amy won the Folio Eddie for excellence in magazine editorial for her feature on algae as a feedstock for biofuel, which was published in Sustainable Industries magazine.

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