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California Project Joins Worldwide Debate Over Use of Chemicals

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California officials are rethinking the way we make and use chemicals. This year, the state's Green Chemistry Initiative will join a worldwide debate about when and how government should protect the environment and public health. In the second of two reports, KPCC's Molly Peterson talks with Californians taking part in the project.

[Sound of a steam burst, a pressing machine at the dry cleaners]

Molly Peterson: Five years ago, southern California air officials voted to phase out perchloroethylene in dry cleaning. "Perc" can cause cancer, and contribute to smog. The Legacy Cleaners in Tustin is a little business in a massive mall, and it's made the change before many others.

[Sound of a scrubber clattering onto a table at the dry cleaners]

Peterson: Today the cleaner's demonstrating what could be the next step: soy and water based spot treatments. No rule prevents cleaners from using perc or TCE, another compound linked to cancer, for that process. And so chemical physicist Katy Wolf says that TCE and perc still taint run off water.

Katy Wolf: The way we found out that they were in all the waste streams, we were doing a project, and we analyzed some of the effluent from four wet cleaning facilities, and we found perc and TCE in many of the waste streams. And it's very bad to get perc or TCE into the sewer, so we thought we should find alternatives, so we did.

Peterson: Compact and intense, and loaded with turquoise jewelry, Wolf runs a research nonprofit that gets state and local grants to consider alternatives that she says cost less than traditional solvents. She's got Santo Angel interested. He's turned off the perc machine at his Temecula cleaners, and he's looking for green cleansers, even though he says perc works.

Santo Angel: When it's mandated, it's going to cost money. So it's a capital venture that everyone is affected with.

Peterson: Katy Wolf, a science advisor to the state's Green Chemistry initiative, says she hopes it'll change how businesses use chemicals. But she understands that incentives and rebates will help that change happen sooner.

Wolf: I just don't want to wait any longer, you know, to develop a big program we never have enough resources for, and we're testing every chemical, and we have to get to the end before we do anything about it. We can do it now, and we should.

Peterson: The price of past pollution catching up with us helps drive current interest in chemical policy. Maureen Gorsen heads the state's initiative and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. That agency has found that nearly three quarters of the state's hazardous landfills are leaking into groundwater.

Maureen Gorsen: When we find that our largest growth area is legacy landfills, we're realizing, you don't throw it away. It doesn't ever go away.

Peterson: Gorsen gathered hundreds of policy options this winter, not long after the European Union developed a framework of laws called REACH. Instead of making agencies decide whether a chemical is unsafe, the EU's program tends to make manufacturers prove a product safe. UCLA Law professor Tim Malloy, one of the authors of the UC's Green Chemistry report, says that approach is gaining steam.

Tim Malloy: The idea there is that we don't engage in time consuming, expensive, and ultimately highly contestable judgments about risk in terms of exposure and assessment, but instead we look at the hazard traits of chemicals.

Peterson: This month the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced it'll keep focusing on risk assessment for chemicals. UC Berkeley researcher Meg Schwartzman says U.S. and EU policies could collide if companies face tougher laws abroad.

Meg Schwartzman: There's also an issue of the U.S. becoming effectively a dumping ground for substances that are not permitted for sale in the European Union. And some of the other substances that get banned in Europe, but also in China and Japan, and that are now finding markets in the U.S. because of our comparatively lax regulatory structure.

Peterson: Manufacturers wouldn't call it lax, but they do agree that current rules are bulky. John Ulrich represents the Chemical Industry Council of California. It's pushing market incentives in meetings with the state.

John Ulrich: The chemical industry has adopted concepts of green chemistry so we don't need to be regulated to do that. We need to be encouraged and incentivized to do it with greater zeal.

Peterson: California's Green Chemistry Initiative, now in its final phase, is wrangling industry players and environmentalists to discussions around the state.

[Sound of chattering participants at workshop]

Peterson: Alan Levy's well pressed khakis and optic white shirt give him away as an industry rep; so does his caution. He's worked with toxic chemicals in mining. And in general, Levy says plenty of reforms have pushed one substance out only to switch to something else that's dangerous. Like lead.

Alan Levy: We wanted to clean up the air, we introduced MTBE, and then we found out that MTBE polluted the groundwater. So we just don't want to go down those paths that ultimately harm us. And that's sort of the tradeoff, is that everything isn't all bad, everything isn't all good.

Peterson: Officials for the state's program are hoping ideas like that are strengthening chemical policy this time around. They'll release their final report this summer.