March 20, 2011

Our View: Legislature should tweak, not gut, chemical law

A political environment created by Gov. LePage is as toxic as some regulated substances.

There is an adult conversation that could be had about the Kids Safe Products law, a piece of legislation that had wide bipartisan support three years ago, but is now Exhibit A in the case against over-regulation in Maine.

The current political climate, however, makes that kind of conversation unlikely.

Instead, one side screams about job-killing bans on commonly used products, and the other postures about people who want to put poison in children's toys. What we have is a stalled process and a lot of opportunity to score political points, but not much else.

Despite the rhetoric, nothing has been banned under the three-year-old law. It only sets up a process for particularly hazardous chemicals to be phased out if there are "effective and affordable" alternatives, and so far only one, Bisphenol A, has been designated for phaseout.

Even critics of the law agree that there is enough evidence of the danger of BPA to warrant special treatment by the state. The problem, they say, is that the list of more than 1,700 substances designated as "priority chemicals" throws a shiver of uncertainty into a wide variety of businesses that may want to make or build things in Maine.

Critics, led by the state Chamber of Commerce, argue that the list should be subjected to a more rigorous risk assessment process that narrows down the field of potentially banned chemicals to a more manageable and less disruptive number.

A bill to do just that has been sponsored by Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, who is not an opponent of the law but someone who wants to see it work better.

Goodall proposes creating an intermediate list of 10 to 50 chemicals that would signal to business where toxicologists were heading. Working through a process that has only targeted one chemical for phaseout in three years should allay manufacturers' concerns about what lies ahead while working to get the truly dangerous substances out of children's products.

But before that proposal can be discussed in a meaningful way, lawmakers will have to move past the pitched battle created by Gov. LePage, who put repeal of the whole Kids Safe Products law on his now-withdrawn regulatory hit list.

Then he made a snide comment about BPA causing nothing more than "little beards" for women, drawing righteous anger from several quarters, including environmentalists and women's groups.

If Gov. LePage wants to have a war over BPA, that's his choice and he may have the votes to reverse the phase-out process.

But he should be prepared to face an all-out battle from environmental groups and a broad cross section of the public who don't think this chemical is anything to joke about.

In the middle of a fight like that, there won't be much space for a reasoned discussion about tweaking the law.

LePage has turned this into an all-or-nothing battle over the worst chemical on the list instead of a reasoned debate over how to avoid the unintended consequences that may result from too many substances under consideration.

That may be the fight that LePage's most ardent supporters would like to see, but full-scale war in the Legislature is not usually considered a good way to operate when you want to get things done.

There is only so much time before adjournment and a lot that needs to be done. If an adult conversation is going to happen, it better start soon.

 

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