During a public hearing regarding a bill that would ban the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA) from use in paper receipts Wednesday the Environment Committee found itself considering the role of the Chemical Innovations Institute, a quasi-public agency created last year by the legislature.
When it was established the institute was charged with fostering green jobs and safer workplaces through “green chemistry” and assisting businesses and state agencies in finding alternatives to harmful industrial chemicals. Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said the hope was that the institute would enable the state to take a broad look at the issue of harmful chemicals.
The Environmental Committee has been examining one potentially harmful chemical per year but Meyer said that has been an inefficient way to address the problem.
The proposed bill banning BPA included a provision to expand the responsibilities of the institute, requiring it to assemble and annual list of harmful chemicals and submit that list to the legislature.
On Wednesday as the institute’s director Professor Tim Morse of the UConn Health Center was testifying in support of banning another singular chemical, there seemed to be some confusion over the progress of the agency and its mission.
Morse spoke in support of the proposed BPA ban but admitted that the institute had not had the opportunity to study the chemical.
That’s due to a lack of funding, he said. When the institute was established it wasn’t given any funding from the state. The hope was that the institute would be able to find federal funds or support from various foundations. But Morse told the committee that progress has been slow going.
He described the funding issue as a sort of chicken or the egg problem. Without initial funding to get rolling, the institute has had trouble developing a staff or adequate facilities, he said. Currently it’s housed out of the office he already had at the UConn Medical Center in Farmington.
And without start-up money, it’s difficult for the group to reach out to businesses or generate a broad list of harmful chemicals for the committee, he said.
Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, asked about the funding of similar institutes in Maine and Washington, which Morse said received some funds from their state governments.
The institute was a finalist for a grant from the Donahue Foundation but didn’t end up winning it, Morse said.
Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Lakeville, said she had concerns about expanding the responsibilities of the institute when it has yet to get up and running.
“We may be setting ourselves up for high expectations that are really unrealistic in terms with coming up with a list [of dangerous chemicals],” she said.
Morse said that a longer time period to get the group functional would help. The process of applying for and receiving federal funds is a long one, he said.
“Being able to find funding and get up and running and come back here and report by next December would be certainly a stretch,” he said.
Meyer said that he and other members of the committee would be willing to personally devote some time to helping the institute attract investment.
“We’re there for you. We’ll meet with foundations. I’m very available and I’m sure most of the committee would be available to do that,” he said.
Morse said he’d take the senator up on that offer and Meyer stressed the importance of the institute’s mission.
“Part of the health future of Connecticut is in your hands,” Meyer said, laughing. “Sorry,” he added.
But after Morse’s testimony business advocate Eric Brown of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association said he had concerns about what the mission of the institute should be.
When the institute was established last year, Brown said that the committee had invited business advocates to weigh in on what the agency should accomplish. At the time the CBIA had concerns that it would become an organization that is more interested in identifying chemicals of concern and inserting itself into legislative efforts, he said.
That concern led to language in the bill that said the institute should not engage in lobbying, Brown said.
“This year, no calls, no emails, there’s no love anywhere and all the sudden a bill comes out that proposes something that goes directly, as we see it, to our most fundamental concern, which is negotiations,” he said.
Brown said CBIA was under the impression that the institute would be involved in research and the sharing of information to help businesses transition to safer chemicals over time.
“If the perception is that instead of this committee banning chemicals one by one, we’ll get a list every year from the institute and have to ban all of them, it takes this in a very different direction and certainly industry will have a very different viewpoint of the whole process,” he said.
Meyer said he was surprised by Brown’s testimony. He said that some advocates have told him they wanted the institute to have the authority to ban chemicals. No way, Meyer said. The institute will only inform the legislature with its annual lists.
But Brown said there are already enough organizations generating lists. Instead he was hoping it would assist in educating businesses. There are new regulations being imposed all the time, which businesses need help understanding, he said. There are also alternatives to harmful chemicals that some businesses may not be aware of and the institute could help to provide that information, he said.
“That kind of assistance would be tremendously valuable to this state,” he said.
Brown said that when the institute was established, some clients gave him grief over where the institute might lead, many of them feared more regulations banning substances without economically viable alternatives, he said. The new bill hasn’t helped to quell their fears, he said.
Meyer defended the bill, saying it was never intended to be the “blockbuster” Brown seemed to be suggesting. Ultimately the two agreed to stay in contact as the measure moves forward to ensure business concerns are addressed.