Critics: Law targeting chemicals too broad

Posted March 29, 2011, at 9:03 p.m.
Last modified March 30, 2011, at 8:52 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Dozens of people testified Tuesday on efforts to rewrite a three-year-old state law that supporters claim protects children from harmful chemicals but critics contend is another example of over-regulation stifling business growth in Maine.

Lawmakers are considering two bills that would modify the Kid-Safe Products Act, a 2008 law that enables Maine environmental regulators to recommend bans on potentially hazardous chemicals in consumer products used by children.

LD 1129 would — depending on the viewpoint of the speaker — either add some flexibility to an over-reaching law that discourages business growth or essentially render toothless a statute that protects Maine children from toxic chemicals.

The bill would narrow the scope of the law to only apply to products “made for, marketed for use by or marketed to children under 12 years of age.” It would also reduce the list of “chemicals of high concern” and place additional burdens of proof on regulators before they could ban a substance.

Another bill, LD 1185, is a less-aggressive approach that would clarify that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection would identify 50 to 100 high-priority chemicals for additional scrutiny. Bill sponsor Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said he believed the “candidate list” would help alleviate concerns raised by businesses.

Passions were strong on both sides.

Rep. James Hamper, R-Oxford, acknowledged that industry representatives wrote LD 1129, the more controversial of the two measures. But Hamper, the bill’s sponsor, pointed out he was one of just nine legislators to vote against the original bill in 2008 because he felt it was overly broad, and he said emotion — not science — drove the legislative process.

“I want to take a more rational approach to this,” said Hamper. The Oxford representative then became emotional himself when, responding to the vocal campaign against his bill, he talked about his own family. “I don’t consider anything here to put my grandson at risk.”

Numerous mothers and representatives of environmental and health groups, meanwhile, said Hamper’s bill represents little more than an attempt by industry to gut a bill that is nowhere near as restrictive as opponents suggest.

“The opposition to this law is having a hard time pointing to specific consequences of the law because there have been none,” said Michael Belliveau, executive director the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

Tuesday’s hearing came just four days after the same committee — in a deal apparently brokered behind the scenes — voted unanimously to go along with the Board of Environmental Protection’s proposal to ban the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA.

A common additive to hardened plastics, BPA was the first chemical to be reviewed and potentially banned under the 2008 Kid-Safe Products Act. After weeks of outcry aimed at Gov. Paul LePage’s opposition to banning BPA, members of the GOP-controlled committee split with the Republican governor and voted to endorse the ban.

But the vote on BPA — a chemical many manufacturers have already dropped in response to growing consumer concern — was viewed by some as a calculated political compromise leading up to the bigger debate about the overarching Kid-Safe Products law.

A number of business owners and trade groups urged the committee on Tuesday to revisit the law, arguing that the lengthy list of chemicals that could be targeted by the DEP creates uncertainty. To date, only BPA and two other chemicals have been reviewed under the law.

But Ben Gilman, a representative for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the existing law goes well beyond children’s products and that the chemicals identified for possible action could be discouraging business growth.

“Maine needs to position itself to come out of this recession ready to strengthen existing businesses to help them to expand … and to make Maine attractive for new businesses,” Gilman said. “With the 1,751 ‘chemicals of high concern’ list hanging over their heads, why would any business make an investment or take a risk here not knowing when or if the chemicals they use in their products would be next.”

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce has played a significant — and controversial — role in generating support for Hamper’s bill.

In an “action alert” to members and supporters, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce stated that the definition of a “children’s product” in the law encompasses “any item sold for residential or commercial use” in Maine, including packaging or components.

But critics accuse the Chamber of intentionally misleading members by leaving out the rest of the definition. Children’s products, according to the law, are consumer products “intended for use by children … and any consumer product containing a chemical of high concern that when used or disposed of will likely result in a child’s or a fetus’s being exposed to that chemical.”

Defenders of the Kid-Safe Products Act also accused the Chamber of causing undue concern by suggesting that the law gives the DEP broad powers to ban chemicals when, in actuality, the Legislature has final say on any proposed prohibitions.

Additionally, Matt Prindiville with the Natural Resources Council of Maine pointed out that the process to ban BPA began last summer and is still not complete. He said the process is fully transparent.

“They [Chamber representatives] are taking to using scare tactics to gin up opposition to common-sense, reasonable and science-based language” in the act, Prindiville said.

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