Letters From The Earth

Better chemistry

November 2, 2007

Do you recall the reference in my last column to the battle with British Petroleum's (BP) wish to send increased quantities of effluent from its refinery in Indiana into Lake Michigan? Well, we won the battle. BP is retreating, at least temporarily, and will come up with a different solution. That's good news. I was reminded of this situation when I saw these two ads in Audubon magazine. Very appropriately placed, don't you think? Audubon, indeed!

What you probably don't remember is that BP was awarded for its "Beyond Petroleum" campaign and its "Oil is old news, solar is the future" at the 2002 Johannesburg Earth Summit, Greenwash Academy Awards. BP bragged about investing $200 million in solar energy. The figure may sound large but that's the cost of a single refinery and it was spread over six years. All this by a company that made $40 billion in its first fiscal quarter of 2007. I'm sorry, the ads in Audubon, one of my favorite magazines, are an incongruity. I could understand them in The New Yorker, but not Audubon. (Money still rules, doesn't it!) The BP budget on the development of non-fossil energies is ridiculously low. The only small consolation is winning the battle in Indiana. Remember, being green, thinking green, is a battle. Solutions aren't easy, nor are they cheap.

Maybe I've become a bit paranoid about the oil industry. I suspect it's because of the cost of gasoline. Sorry, I'll try to move beyond my fascination with my friends at BP and focus on the primary topic of this column: REACH and the implications it suggests for our industry.

Pursuing chemical safety

How many of you know what the acronym REACH stands for? Two and a half years ago I was among the ignorant. It means Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals. It refers to the European Union's new chemical legislation that went into effect June 1. The EU believes that REACH will allow for better knowledge about chemicals and more efficient communication about risk management measures. REACH is supposed to lead to lower occurrence of occupational diseases and deaths. Obviously, this would lead to lower costs to national health programs which abound in Europe. The objective, as I understand it, is to put more and more substances under REACH legislation. The goals of REACH are:

-    the protection of human health and the environment;
-    to be able to maintain and enhance the chemical industry in Europe;
-    to prevent fragmentation of internal markets;
-    to increase transparency;
-    to integrate with international efforts;
-    to promote non-animal testing;
-    to comply with EU international obligations under WTO.

If you operate a plant in any of the EU member countries, and either manufacture or import one ton or more of a chemical substance annually, you are now required to register the substance in a central database at the European Chemical Agency.

Registration involves submitting technical data on the substance. Reporting becomes far more specific if you use 10 or more tons per year. Evaluation lets authorities determine the need for further testing. The aim is to induce the industry to substitute substances with safer alternatives when technically and economically feasible. Substances that are of high concern might include materials that are carcinogens, mutagens or toxic to the reproductive system; persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic.

REACH is an effort to put control into the use of chemicals that may have been used indiscriminately. Some of you here in America may question the bureaucracy and use of legislation. Is the blanket of control that REACH implies useful or restrictive? I applaud the effort to attempt to mandate that we must be more careful with formulations and the use of chemicals and additives that are unfriendly. If we take the concept through all value chains, with all WTO members, one would quickly realize that the use of lead based paints, for example, is unacceptable. REACH is new. It remains to be seen whether its implementation will be successful in Europe, and ultimately beyond that region.

Remember, REACH means that if you are formulating an adhesive or silicone, or adding a coating on paper or film, and use more than one ton per year, you must register the substance with the European Chemicals Agency. Therefore, every aspect of our industry in Europe is now required to report its use of chemicals and substances. I believe this kind of reporting will cause the leading suppliers in our industry to be more cognizant of raw material use. "To stick" at all costs will change. To be environmentally friendly, meet REACH requirements, and continue to be competitively priced, will become the order of the day.

I am reminded of changes that can occur if raw material suppliers focus on environmental implications. DuPont, for example, back in the late 1980s, learned that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the earth's stratospheric ozone layer. In order to stop this damage it ended its production of Freon and other CFC based products. Within two years DuPont had filed dozens of patents for non-CFC refrigerants. DuPont, in other words, developed alternatives to its original polluting CFCs. They went beyond compliance voluntarily. Just recently DuPont announced that it is working to create cleaner manufacturing products from renewable resources. Go, DuPont!

If compliance to REACH will help us achieve the kind of changes that we need in our industry, I'm all for it. The requirement to register the use of materials may create a focus and awareness that raw material change, when competitive, can make friendlier products.

Another Letter from the Earth.

Author's postscript: Yes, I am paranoid. As my column goes to press, I've just learned that BP's North Indiana neighbor, US Steel, has made a deal (a sleight of hand) with the State of Indiana at its Gary works to significantly increase pollution discharge into the Grand Calumet River, which empties into Lake Michigan.

Have you been near this region of Northern Indiana on the edges of Lake Michigan? This is the site of BP, US Steel and other manufacturing giants. The area is just west of the Indiana Dunes National Park, an absolutely gorgeous natural phenomenon. The area of manufacturing at the southern end of Lake Michigan is an environmental disaster. Like BP, US Steel has received permission from the State of Indiana, while federal EPA officials look the other way, to increase unlimited discharge of waste water. This, while US Steel pays to dredge out of the river millions of cubic yards of contaminated muck that it dumped in the 1950s and '60s.

Talk about industrial abuse. Here is what's being dumped into that river: oil and grease, lead, arsenic, benzene, fluoride, nitrates, chromium, etc. By the way, our office purchases drinking water from the City of Chicago. Chicago's main source of supply is Lake Michigan. No wonder I feel this funny thing growing out of my neck.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His e-mail address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.
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