Chemical Reaction

Machines stamp, whir, and grunt loudly in Plant B of the Acushnet Rubber Co. in New Bedford. The stench of rubber fills the vast space of the century-old factory, as workers churn out gaskets, wiper blades, and other rubber products used by auto makers and office-equipment manufacturers. High tech it isn’t.

But forward-thinking is still very much in evidence at Acushnet. Managers and workers are constantly on the lookout for ways to increase the plant’s efficiency, and one way is to use chemicals that are less costly and less toxic. Jack Bailey, the firm’s director of environmental affairs, points to a row of huge vats used to clean oil from metal rings before they are joined with rubber to make bearings for automobile steering columns. Acushnet once spent $20,000 a year on trichloroethylene, a toxic solvent commonly used as a degreaser, says Bailey. Three years ago the company switched to a cheaper, water-based cleaner that did the job just as well.

Less cost to the company—and to the environment. It’s a new way of thinking that says companies can be both lean and green.

Acushnet had already committed itself to environmentally conscious planning a decade ago when Massachusetts passed the Toxics Use Reduction Act. But Bailey credits the first-in-the-nation law with prodding Acushnet to go further. “It took us to the next level,” he says of the 1989 legislation, which makes companies report their use of toxic chemicals and draw up plans to use less of these hazardous agents.

Bailey isn’t the only one singing TURA’s praises. In October, the state program was named one of 10 winners of the Innovations in American Government Award, given annually by the Ford Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “The award points to the total success of this program,” says Robert Durand, the state’s secretary of environmental affairs.

State officials may be justified in crowing a bit. After all, the program was chosen from among 1,500 applicants nationwide. But they have a more practical reason for trumpeting the recognition TURA received: Massachusetts business groups—maintaining that the law has done little to reduce pollution and has become a bureaucratic noose on the neck of industry—want to get rid of it.

“After 10 years of paying millions of dollars of fees to support bureaucratic paperwork exercises like the TURA reporting, which doesn’t benefit the environment at all, it’s time for a change,” says Michael DeVito, director of the Massachusetts Chemical Technology Alliance, a trade organization representing chemical makers. DeVito and other industry representatives want to see TURA replaced with a voluntary program that offers tax credits to companies that reduce toxic chemical emissions.

These complaints could be dismissed as knee-jerk industry griping —state-imposed requirements are made to be complained about— except that, for all their boasting about TURA, government officials seem to be listening. A blue ribbon panel appointed by former environmental affairs secretary Trudy Coxe spent seven months hashing out ideas for revamping TURA. And Durand, the current environmental chief, has drafted a new bill to put those ideas into law.

The state’s apparent eagerness to recraft the toxics statute raises a curious question, one mentioned nowhere in the state’s lengthy application to the Kennedy School competition: If TURA is so great, what’s there to fix?

The greening of industry

In part, the state is simply reacting to the constant drumbeat of industry opposition, which has taken the form of various bills filed in the Legislature over the past several years to eliminate the main reporting requirements of the law. But even TURA’s proponents say the law could be improved.

“Almost everyone now believes changes would improve and make the program better,” says Ken Geiser, director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, a state-funded research and training program established by the TURA law. He adds, however, that “there are a lot of differences on what those changes should be.”

Indeed, the unfolding battle uncovers a new fault line in the evolving debate over environmental policy. As companies lay claim to a new corporate ethos of environmental awareness—and point to dramatic reductions in pollution as proof of its effect—they say it’s time for heavy-handed regulations to give way to a more cooperative approach to pollution prevention.

“Thirty years ago or 20 years ago, when everybody knew that perhaps government needed to give industry a boot, I was in college,” says Edward Jamro, the environmental protection manager at Solutia, in Springfield, the largest chemical manufacturer in the state. “People like me have been hired by companies, and most companies now have an environmental ethic.” Government’s role, says Jamro, should be to “encourage that and enhance it.”

The law encourages firms to reduce their use of toxics.

He gets no argument from Durand. There are “a lot of people who grew up in our generation who care about these issues,” says the state’s environmental affairs chief, who’s 46. “And the mindset at the CEO level, at the board level, is a lot different than it was 10, 15 years ago.” But Durand and other state officials say that doesn’t mean TURA should be tossed aside.

“There are companies that will respond to an incentive-based program and others that won’t,” says state Rep. Douglas Petersen (D-Marblehead), the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Agriculture. “I don’t agree that if you show them the way they’ll all come running.”

By requiring companies to file public reports on their use of toxic chemicals, the TURA statute was designed to spur firms to seek out ways to reduce their use of toxics. And proponents of the law claim it has done just that.

“Shining the light on toxics use has created an incentive to reduce toxics,” says John DeVillars, who recently stepped down as New England regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s a way to inform communities about the environmental activities in their communities, and I think that knowledge and information often leads to polite, but firm, pressure, which then leads to more responsive environmental practices,” says DeVillars, who was state environmental affairs secretary under Gov. Michael Dukakis when TURA was enacted.

Since TURA has been in effect, after adjusting for increases in industrial output, Massachusetts businesses have decreased their use of toxic chemicals by 24 percent, reduced the generation of hazardous byproducts by 41 percent, and cut the release of emissions by a whopping 80 percent. But industry officials point to similar reductions in emissions in surrounding states that don’t have such a law. They say the Massachusetts gains have been part of a nationwide trend toward improved environmental practices that has occurred independent of TURA.

“Our view of the raw data suggests that TURA’s had little or no impact on either the use of chemicals or release of emissions into the environment,” says Robert Ruddock, vice president for energy and environmental programs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s main industry lobbying group.

TURA advocates readily acknowledge that emissions to the air, land, and water have also been reduced markedly in surrounding states. But they say the focus on such “end of the pipe” measurements misses the main point of the law, which is to reduce the use of toxics at the start of the production process and the levels of toxic byproduct that must be dis-posed of in waste sites afterward. Unless production practices are changed, they say, reducing smokestack emissions or toxic releases into the water may only shift the environmental burden to waste disposal.

There is no way to compare Massachusetts with neighboring states on chemical use, since none have TURA-like reporting requirements. However, the federal Toxics Release Inventory, which monitors emissions, also collects data on waste byproducts disposed of through hazardous waste treatment sites or other means. On this measure, Massachusetts industries do appear to be “greener” than those in neighboring Connecticut, for example—the New England state regarded as having the most comparable industrial base. From 1991 to 1997, annual toxic waste byproduct per facility in Connecticut ranged between 567,200 and 702,300 pounds, while the comparable figures in Massachusetts were 193,000 to 239,600 pounds per facility. “I think that’s where you’re seeing the effect of the toxics use reduction law,” says Dwight Peavey, coordinator of the Toxics Release Inventory for the EPA’s Region 1 office, which oversees the six New England states.

Command and control?

But does TURA demand too much of industry, and for no good reason? Although the statute outlined a statewide target of reducing toxic waste by 50 percent by 1997, there are no requirements that an individual company achieve any specific reduction. The idea was that firms would reduce toxics use and the generation of waste byproducts on their own, once they completed mandated annual reports on their chemical use and biannual plans to reduce their use of toxics. This absence of mandated reductions in chemical use, say TURA proponents, undercuts industry’s characterization of the law as onerous “command and control” regulation.

Indeed, when TURA was enacted in 1989, it appeared to enjoy broad support, even from industry. “Everybody ended up a winner on this one,” John Gould, the president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, proclaimed on the day the TURA bill was signed. But Gould and other industry leaders didn’t embrace the bill in a vacuum. Looming over AIM and other business groups was the threat of a statewide ballot question that would have imposed far more sweeping mandates on chemical use.

“Somebody can have a smile on their face as their arm’s being twisted behind their back,” says DeVito, of the chemical-makers trade organization.

After 10 years, AIM and some other business leaders aren’t smiling anymore. They say the mandate to file toxics use reduction plans every two years has become particularly burdensome to companies that have already been through the process. “After you’ve done it once, there is little value in the updates,” says AIM’s Ruddock. “You simply do it for the sake of doing it, because your deadline’s up and you have to.”

Companies must file TURA reports if they manufacture or process 25,000 pounds or more of a toxic substance annually or if they use 10,000 pounds or more of a toxic agent as part of their production process. In 1998, the last year for which complete figures are available, 520 Massachusetts firms filed TURA reports. To complete the forms, companies must wade through a 29-page, IRS-like set of instructions plus a pile of appendices. Meanwhile, the biannual plans for reducing chemical use must be approved by a certified toxics use reduction planner, who may be either an outside contractor hired by the firm or a company employee who has gone through the necessary certification training.

And then there are fees, which vary according to the number of toxic chemicals used and the size of a firm’s work force. TURA fees can reach $31,450 per year for each facility. Polaroid Corp., which has five separate facilities in Massachusetts, paid $85,250 in TURA fees in 1998, and the company estimates the actual cost to be roughly twice that amount, considering the personnel costs of reporting and planning.

State officials contend that companies make back the costs in efficiencies the TURA planning process uncovers. They point to an Abt Associates study that showed Massachusetts companies realizing a net savings of $14 million from 1990 to 1997 as a result of the TURA program. But that doesn’t mean a particular company such as Polaroid continues to reap production savings from plans they prepare every two years.

Industry critics want to scrap reporting requirements.

One aspect of the program praised by all sides is the Office of Technical Assistance. More than one-third of TURA’s $4.8 million annual budget supports the OTA staff, who provide free assistance to Massachusetts companies in finding ways to reduce costs by reducing use of toxic chemicals.

But how to fine-tune TURA is still a matter of controversy. The 12-member blue ribbon panel set up by the state environmental affairs office, which included state officials, business representatives, and environmental advocates, was unable to reach consensus. Ruddock, the AIM representative, and Stephen Greene, director of environmental affairs at Polaroid, submitted a minority report advancing the industry preference for an entirely voluntary pollution prevention program.

State officials, legislative leaders, and environmental advocates alike say they’re open to industry’s idea of incentives, such as tax credits, to reward companies that demonstrate continued progress in reducing toxics use. And they are willing to lighten the paperwork load for companies, including paring back planning requirements for companies that have already been through the process. But to do away altogether with the requirement of reporting chemical use and devising plans to reduce it, say state officials, would be throwing out the baby with the wastewater.

“We’ve made it very clear that the mandate on reporting is not going to be eliminated,” says Gina McCarthy, assistant secretary for pollution prevention, environmental business, and technology. “There are some things that aren’t up for grabs. That’s the underlying premise of the law, and that’s what’s worked.”

The draft bill prepared by Durand’s office retains TURA’s principal reporting requirements but also introduces some streamlining to cut back on unnecessary paperwork. An incentive-based system to reward substantial reductions in toxics use is also included. And responding to calls for a wider view of pollution prevention, the bill provides incentives for a broad range of corporate green schemes, such as reducing solid waste and cutting water and energy use.

“Here’s the goal: pollution prevention,” Durand says of the draft legislation. “We’re not going to micromanage you on how you get there. We just want you to get there.”

The draft legislation also extends TURA’s reach beyond the manufacturing world to include other major chemical users not covered by the current law, such as hospitals, universities, and government agencies, and the reporting threshold is lowered for the most hazardous chemicals, such as lead and mercury.

But industry officials set on scrapping TURA aren’t ready to throw in the towel yet. DeVito of the Massachusetts Chemical Technology Alliance—which opted not to even take part in the blue ribbon panel discussions—says his group is continuing to make the case against TURA.

Environmental advocates say the stakes may be particularly high for opponents of the state law because the EPA has been considering a proposal to impose TURA-like reporting requirements on companies nationwide. If industry can eliminate the mandated reporting provisions of the Massachusetts model, they say, it may help derail the federal effort. “They want to kill it in the cradle,” says James Gomes of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

But the Legislature seems unlikely to go along with any such scheme. Petersen, the House natural resources committee chairman, says, “I think there is legislative support for a draw—give a little on this side, give a little on that side. There’s really no appetite that I perceive in the House to do away with TURA.”

A draw might be as good as it gets for TURA opponents. Environmental consciousness may have been the exclusive domain of rabble-rousing activists in the era of the first Earth Days, in the early 1970’s, but a generation later everyone from the suburban soccer mom to the city dweller is wary of what’s going on at the plant down the street. “I don’t think any legislator would relish going back to their constituents to explain why they voted to take away people’s right to know about cancer-causing chemicals,” says Gomes.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Still, doing away with wasteful paperwork and devising creative new approaches to pollution prevention seem fully in keeping with the Innovations in American Government Award state leaders are boasting about. Industry leaders can even take some credit for the current reevaluation of the law, and for forcing necessary changes. But with the barn door now open on public disclosure of industrial chemical use, it will be tough to find support for slamming it shut.

Michael Jonas is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to The Boston Globe.