Industry rages at European Chemicals Agency

Last week I attended an unforgetable conference in Helsinki. This piece I wrote just afterwards sums up the atmosphere.  Would love to know if anyone else who was there agrees?

If two words could sum up the mood of chemical sector representatives at the recent gathering in Helsinki, Finland, they would be “frustration” and “anger.”

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA’s) Second Stakeholder Day on May 27 was a rare opportunity for the industry to come face to face with the organization that is responsible for implementing Europe’s Reach chemical regulation.

Anyone who has attended a chemical industry conference will know that organizers are lucky if they get one or two questions from the audience after presentations. More often, there are none.

Imagine journalists’ surprise as an incredible scene unfolded at the conference here in Helsinki. Delegate after delegate queued up to bombard a panel of embattled ECHA representatives perched at a safe distance on the podium. Most were from chemical companies finding it all but impossible to follow the system of data submission that must be completed under Reach by 2010.

Producers of any chemical in volumes of 1,000 tonnes or more – roughly 80% of Europe’s output – plus those manufacturing a list of particularly hazardous substances of special concern, must submit detailed dossiers of safety and usage data to ECHA by December 2010.

To do this, they must form Substance Information Exchange Forums (SIEFs), which are groups of producers of the

same substance.

Perhaps the biggest cause of anger and frustration is the inaccessibility of ECHA. People with queries have no option but to email a help desk. Many delegates said answers take weeks to arrive and often refer questioners back to existing guidance which they were already aware of.

There is no way to speak to a human being at ECHA – so it was no wonder the audience were keen to do so on this occasion.

Erwin Annys, director of Reach policy at Europe’s trade body Cefic, was a speaker at the event. He used the opportunity to urge ECHA to set up a telephone hotline.

But ECHA director general Geert Dancet ruled out the idea, claiming it would involve too many languages and be too complicated. One would have thought English – the language spoken at the conference – would do.

Apart from the lack of human contact from ECHA, other key complaints from delegates centered on the problems of forming and operating SIEFs. There were many people present who were taking a lead responsibility for Reach implementation. It sounded like some had been banging their heads against a brick wall.

The key role of SIEF lead registrant caused a lot of anxiety. “Who would want that job? It is a huge responsibility and will you be liable if it all goes wrong?” asked a delegate on the conference sidelines.

Unfortunately for some, there is a working assumption that the largest producer of a substance should, by default, become the lead registrant. The role, therefore, is being thrust upon producers that  are not necessarily willing participants.

Lead registrants must play a pivotal role in communicating with the other SIEF members to coordinate the setting of fee structures and the gathering of information for the dossiers.

A delegate from UK-based chemical firm INEOS gave an example of the problems he is facing in this role. He has 2,000 companies preregistered for his SIEF. Sending an email to them all resulted in 85 bouncing back as having the wrong address and 10 being rejected as spam.

This raised a chuckle among the audience while the ECHA speakers’ panel winced.

The panel did its best to bat off the volley of complaints and questions, but often they simply could not answer complex technical queries. Some raised anomalies that are now being addressed.

For example, it emerged that it is impossible for an exporter to Europe to change its legal representative, known as the Only Representative (OR), without the OR’s permission because their signature is required on the paperwork.

To give credit to ECHA, it did seem like the panel were listening. The delegate with the OR problem said later that it was being acted on.

ECHA also gave guidance for getting rid of unwanted facilitators for the groups set up to form SIEFs (known as pre-SIEFs). In some cases, facilitators were consultants who were trying to make money out of selling services.

Realizing that time is running out before the 2010 deadline, ECHA also unveiled a package of extra support for lead registrants, including a seminar in the autumn, regular webinars, a forum and a more interactive help desk.

It also revealed a new motto that it hopes trade bodies and the media will put on their websites: “The clock is ticking. Form your SIEF now.”

There is no sign of any more time being given to allow the industry to overcome all the SIEF implementation issues by December 2010. And with heavy penalties – including imprisonment – for those in breach of the regulation, the industry must hope that ECHA is now in a better listening mode. It is high time the information bottleneck was removed.

At the same event I also recorded this video in which a top UN official, UN Environment Programme executive director, Achim Steiner, said the industry is not doing enough to clean up its act.

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