NGOs denounce 'culture of secrecy' in EU chemicals agency

  

Environmental NGOs have accused the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) of leniency in enforcing the REACH regulation on chemical safety, raising the pressure on the European Commission to tighten the screw ahead of a review expected this month.

An audit of ECHA, undertaken by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and ClientEarth, concluded on "fundamental flaws" in the way chemical substances are registered under REACH.

The NGOs accuse ECHA of accepting "uncompleted dossiers" submitted by chemical manufacturers and failing to use its powers to ask registrants to properly complete and correct them.

Industry pressure

What's more, the groups also say the agency is "shrouded in a culture of secrecy, under pressure from the chemicals industry which claims ‘business confidentiality’ as a means to prevent important information being released." ECHA did not immediately wish to comment on the accusations.

Chemical manufacturers have indeed won safeguards in the legislation allowing them to withhold information such as the precise quantities of substances they produce and where they are produced, arguing this could give competitors an insight into their innovation strategies.

As a result, registration dossiers submitted by industry are of "very poor quality" and include "irrelevant information or empty fields", the NGOs write. And even though the dossiers were incomplete, they were still accepted by ECHA, which decided to grant them registration numbers by default, the NGOs claim.

Companies may also request ECHA not to publish the names of industrial sites, claiming that doing so would endanger their commercial confidentiality. ClientEarth filed a lawsuit against ECHA last year, asking the agency to disclose the information. "Commercial interests should not be given precedence over people's health," the NGO argued.

ECHA admits to shortcomings

ECHA has in the past acknowledged the poor quality of dossiers submitted by industry, saying some producers unduly tried to benefit from registration exemptions reserved for so-called "intermediate" substances.

Geert Dancet, ECHA's executive director, complained last year about the deceptive tactics used by some chemical companies.

"We have evidence that a proportion of companies have mistakenly claimed to be small or medium," he told a REACH conference in September 2011, promising to make them pay the full cost, plus a surplus charge to cover the administrative expenses.

REACH review to look into agency's remit

The NGO report will raise the pressure on the European Commission to tighten the screw on REACH, ahead of a review of the regulation, originally planned for June but which is now expected this month.

The review will contain a series of reports examining how the regulation has worked so far, including one looking into the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), based in Helsinki.

The Commission has said the reports were only a legal requirement and that they would not necessarily lead to a full rewrite of the REACH regulation.

Positions: 

Responding to the NGO accusations, ECHA said it receives "tens of thousands of dossiers containing up to 15,000 fields of information on substances and their impact on human health and the environment" and that it was doing its best to assess them.

The agency said its first task is to perform an IT-based automated review called a 'completeness check' to verify whether all fields have been filled. "It is not a check of the quality of the information provided nor is it a check of its adequacy," the agency told EurActiv, saying: "Article 20 of the REACH regulation actually specifies that the completeness check cannot address quality or adequacy of the information."

If a dossier is incomplete, ECHA then notifies it to the registrant: "We write to the company concerned and tell them that they have failed to complete successfully, the reasons for that, and the legal consequences for them of not submitting a complete dossier. In that case, a registration number will not be given until a complete dossier has been provided."

In actual fact, ECHA said it had received only "around 5%" of incomplete dossiers since the online tool was launched in 2009, stressing that the NGOs accusations were "not true".

"And it is also not true to say that we have failed to ask companies to complete dossiers."

Hubert Mandery, Director General of the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), condemned the NGO study, saying: "Industry and authorities both are making great efforts to meet the requirements, which are putting enormous strain on resources of all actors involved."

“The assessment of whether or not REACH works is in the hands of EU authorities, who have the oversight and relevant information.I consider it presumptuous to make an outside judgement without having the full picture."

"If there are shortcomings on the industry side, they need to be sorted out, because we want to make REACH work."

Timeline: 
  • Oct. 2012: European Commission expected to launch REACH review with a series of reports examining how the regulation has worked so far. It may decide to table a legislative proposal to amend REACH at a later stage.
  • 31 May 2013: Deadline for the second REACH registration phase for substances manufactured or imported in quantities of 1 to 1,000 tonnes per year per manufacturer
  • June 2018: Third registration phase closes with substances produced in smaller quantities (1-100 tonnes).
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