By Douglas Fischer
Oakland Tribune
November 21, 2003

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Chemical waste drums The chemical industry may be considering a covert campaign to attack a growing effort in California forcing more chemical testing, according to a leaked "memo" from the American Chemical Council obtained by the Environmental Working Group.

The council, representing manufacturers of 90 percent of the chemicals and most plastic resins sold in the United States, denied such plans were afoot, saying Thursday the memo was instead a proposal received from a public relations firm and has not been enacted.

Nonetheless the council, a spokesman said, did pass along to other industry groups the four-page proposal, which outlines a strategy to "stigmatize" the pro-testing movement and create an "independent ... watchdog group" acting as a pro-industry information clearinghouse.

Industry has a lot riding on the outcome.

Often called the "precautionary principle," the growing movement essentially revolutionizes how industrial and consumer chemicals get tested prior to their release to the market.

Rather than force consumer groups and government agencies to prove a substance causes harm -- as is the case now in California -- industry under the precautionary principle would be required to show the substance was safe prior to its sale.

"The American Chemistry Council and their manufacturers have had a free ride, with some exceptions, for the past 50 years," said Ted Schettler, science director for the Massachusetts-based Science and Environmental Health Network. "So that's why it's threatening.

"The notion that one would have to produce data about the safety or hazards that might be associated with their product prior to exposing the public is not something they have any history or inclination of doing."

The proposal, created sometime in July according to data embedded in the computer file provided by the Environmental Working Group, outlines a public awareness campaign with a projected cost as high as $15,000 per month.

Parts of the strategy call for organizing protests timed with key votes in the Legislature, the creation of a "non-business led coalition" to provide testimony against the precautionary principle, and "selective intelligence gathering" of industry opponents.

Nichols-Dezenhall, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management and public relations firm known for its bare-knuckled tactics, wrote it, said the firm's senior vice president, Steven Schlein.

"It was designed by us because of the business climate in California," he said. "That's the way to wage a long-term public affairs campaign. You get supporters."

Thomas Metzger, spokesman for the chemistry council, said the industry wants an "aggressive awareness campaign" but has done nothing yet.

"We are and were very concerned about the issue. We're wanting to do something," he said. "The proposal we got from Nichols-Dezenhall may have pushed tactics we weren't comfortable with. ... I don't know that it was ever actively considered."

But that the proposal got passed along shows what industry is considering, said Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group.

"We don't want to get too wide-eyed at this," he said. "This goes on all the time. ... It's acknowledging that our (industry) group doesn't have any credibility to talk about this, so we're setting up front-groups."

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