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EU Commission Backs Chemical Bill Compromise

Date: 16-Nov-05
Country: FRANCE
Author: Jeff Mason

The draft bill on Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) is scheduled for a vote in the European Parliament on Thursday after years of haggling and debate.

REACH is designed to protect people from the adverse effects of chemicals found in a wide range of products such as paint, detergents, cars and computers.

In the drive to get approval in the EU legislature, key political groups agreed last week on changes to reduce the number of substances in the low-tonnage category that would require tests.

"The Commission decided in favour of this compromise," Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen told lawmakers.

"We think that this compromise strikes a very good balance between the competitiveness, health and environment goals."

Environmentalists said the compromise went too far in accommodating industry's demands and weakened the bill.

Support from the EU's executive Commission, the original author of the bill with powers to accept or reject amendments, is crucial for REACH to move on in the EU legislative process.

The low-tonnage category applies to chemicals that are produced or imported in amounts of between 1 and 10 tonnes a year, estimated to be between 17,500 and 20,000 substances.

The package is expected to get broad support in a vote scheduled for Thursday despite dissent from the Greens party, which tabled a counter proposal.

Chemical makers would have to register the properties of substances with a central EU database. Those of highest concern, such as carcinogens, would require authorisation to be used.

CLOSER TO BECOMING LAW

The council of EU member states is debating its own version of REACH. Germany, which has Europe's largest chemical industry, succeeded in delaying a decision among member states scheduled for later this month, but Britain still plans to obtain a deal before its presidency concludes at the end of 2005.

"We recognise we are very close to a deal and we still intend to achieve political agreement before the end of the UK presidency," Willy Bach, a minister in Britain's Department of Environment, told lawmakers.

Verheugen said he hoped the outcome in parliament would spur member states to complete their position this year, too.

"I hope that this package will encourage the Council to adopt REACH still this year," he said, adding he thought there was a good chance it would be wrapped up by the end of 2005.

There are still outstanding issues, however. No agreement has been reached among lawmakers on the issue of mandatory substitution for hazardous chemicals, and the amount of animal testing required by REACH remains a divisive subject.

Environmental group Greenpeace said the compromise had diluted the bill.

"We are quite disappointed that the Commission is willing to water down and accept a watered down version of its proposal that will not give sufficient safety data on most chemicals covered by REACH," said Greenpeace policy officer Nadia Haiama.

She said she welcomed, however, signals that the Commission would support amendments that would require substitution of hazardous chemicals if alternatives exist.

Verheugen told lawmakers he did not feel REACH had been weakened or watered down.

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