Green emerges triumphant over industry in latest REACH wrangle

By Kirsty Barnes

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags European parliament European union

Environmental representatives have emerged triumphant in the latest
round of negotiations over the finer bones of contention of the
European REACH chemicals legislation, due to come in force in April
next year.

Last week the European Parliament's Environment Committee met to cast its latest vote on the draft REACH regulation, which now contains 180 amendments, and passed the highly controversial pro-substitution amendments by 42 votes to 12, with six abstentions and 12 no-votes, 11 of which came from the conservative group in the European Parliament, known for its pro-business stance.

The contentious Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) bill, which would require 30,000 chemicals produced or imported in the EU to be registered with a central agency in Helsinki, has been under fire from industry both inside and outside Europe, but pushed heavily by environmental groups during its seven years in the making.

However, the substitution amendments voted on last week remain the most divisive aspect of the draft legislation and the two sides have been at loggerheads over the issue.

The mandatory substitution measure proposed by the European Parliament would require companies to replace substances that are known to be toxic with safer ones in certain situations, such as when alternatives are available, and has been heavily criticised by industry on the grounds that mandatory substitution or across-the-board uniform time limits would cause unnecessary market disruptions without clear environmental benefits.

However, environmental groups believed that in its current form, the proposed anti-substitution measures did not go far enough, and expressed concerns over the lack of clarification of the exemption criteria that allow toxic chemicals to still be used in scenarios when there is "no suitable and safer alternative available"; "the benefits of the substance for society or the economy outweigh the risks", and; where the risks can be "adequately controlled".

The outcome of last week's vote was therefore welcomed by a number of pro-green MEPs and environment groups such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth as it means the European Parliament now looks likely to force firms operating in Europe to adopt safer alternatives to more known toxic substances and face stricter criteria as to whether they have exercised "adequate control" over other toxic chemicals.

"The substitution principle is the cornerstone of the whole legislation,"​ said pro-substitution Italian MEP Guido Sacconi.

Meanwhile, the fight is not finished for industry - a plenary vote will take place on November 14 and pro-industry MEPs will still have a chance to challenge the environment committee's pro-substitution amendments then. In addition, anti-substitution countries such as The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Portugal and Ireland will also need to give their seal of approval.

Championing the industry's cause will be a number of industry firms, pro-industry MEPs and organisations such as the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) who released a statement after the vote last week.

"Today's vote in the Environment Committee of the European Parliament (EP) will hamper the ability of REACH to achieve its goals to drive both greater safety of products and competitiveness of the European industry"​ said Alain Perroy, Director Gerneral of CEFIC.

"The stricter criteria for granting authorisation and mandatory substitution, even when there is no alternative, will lead to the banning of certain substances even though there are clear socio-economic benefits and no alternative is available. This situation could encourage a lot of producers to move out of Europe."

So as the draft legislation moves towards its final approval date in December, the European Parliament and Council will continue to have to undertake the difficult task of trying to balance the health and safety concerns of environmental campaigners with the outcries from the chemicals industry who insist that the new legislation will be stifling and spell economic death for many companies.

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