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Targeting toxins; Hearings will look at proposed fee increase. Advocates say reducing toxins an important step in cancer prevention. Foes say law has outlived its usefulness and one more cost of doing business.

Byline: Susan Gonsalves

A proposed fee increase under the state's Toxics Use Reduction Act program (TURA) will be the subject of yet-to-be scheduled public hearings across the commonwealth in the upcoming weeks.

Last month, TURA's Administrative Council voted 4 to 2 to begin the regulatory process for the rate hikes, which will impact 468 companies subject to the 1989 statute.

To date, companies have replaced millions of pounds of toxic chemicals with safer substances, and increased the efficiency with which they use chemicals, according to Rich Bizzozero, director of the Office of Technical Assistance and Technology at the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

The fee increases, in some cases, more than 40 percent, will not put Incom Inc. in Charlton out of business, said company president and chief executive officer Michael A. Detarando. But they are "just one more significant expense that we have to overcome before we can even begin to compete in a global medical marketplace.''

Incom Inc. has 200 employees, and is a supplier of rigid, fused fiber optics for a number of industries including life sciences, the military, and medical and dental equipment.

TURA requires Massachusetts companies that use large quantities of specific toxic chemicals to evaluate, plan and implement pollution prevention strategies, and report their results annually. The fees, which pay for state environmental agents to monitor and inspect companies, were first assessed in 1991.

Mr. Bizzozero said that TURA companies have reduced chemical releases by 90 percent between 1990 and 2000, and by 73 percent between 2000 and 2012.

Under the proposal, the base fee for companies with 10 to 50 employees and 50 to 100 employees will remain at $1,850 and $2,775, respectively. However, the per chemical fee is proposed to rise from $1,100 to $1,650.

Additionally, the fee maximum would change from $5,550 to $8,325 for companies with the fewest employees and from $7,400 to $11,025 for the next level.

Also, companies with 100 to 500 employees would see their base fee increase from $4,625 to $6,938, the per chemical fee rise from $1,100 to $1,650 and the fee maximum jump from $14,800 to $18,000.

Finally, the largest firms, with more than 500 employees, would see the base fee increase from $9,250 to $13,875, per chemical fee from $1,100 to $1,650, and maximum fee remain at $31,450.

About 80 companies in Worcester County are covered by TURA. Every year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists the companies that produce the most toxic chemicals. Wyman-Gordon, at its facility in North Grafton, had long topped the list in the region until last year, when it dropped to fourth.

According to the EPA's most recent figures, Wyman-Gordon was able to reduce its waste footprint by driving up the percentage of chemicals it is able to recycle, while continuing to treat the vast majority of the remaining hazardous chemicals.

Incom became the top producer of toxic chemicals in the state last year, mainly because another company that had purchased and recycled its main waste product -- fused fiber optic glass that contains lead oxide -- stopped buying the waste because it was no longer cost effective. That left Incom having to ship nearly 43,000 pounds of waste to a disposal facility.

The TURA fee hike is proposed in order to continue the program's success and continue to protect public health, said EOEA's assistant secretary of communications and public affairs, Mary-Leah Assad.

She said the fees allow TURA to meet statutory obligations, including inspections, compliance monitoring, technical assistance and other services provided to the state's businesses.

"Businesses will achieve (success) at a higher rate, and communities will continue to benefit from the adoption of more sustainable manufacturing practices,'' Ms. Assad said.

A coalition of 22 environmental and community organizations wrote a letter of support to "modernize'' the TURA fee structure.

"Some businesses or trade associations will inevitably argue that such fee increase will be too onerous for Massachusetts businesses,'' wrote Elizabeth Saunders, the Massachusetts director of Clean Water Action, in the letter. "The fact that businesses have realized 'both substantial cost savings and competitive advantages' from the program demonstrates that such an argument is little more than a knee-jerk reaction to any proposal to increase costs.'' The letter also argued that further evaluation of the fees "should be considered no more than a delay tactic.''

Mr. Detarando disagreed that TURA is still useful.

"This one definitely goes in the `Reasons to Leave Massachusetts' column,'' he said. "The `Reasons to Stay Column' is still a bit longer, but the difference between the two keeps getting smaller and smaller.''

Christopher Geehern, executive vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, described TURA as a successful program that has outlived its usefulness.

He said that the fees under the law have prompted numerous companies to reduce or eliminate their use of chemicals, and change their production processes by switching out of certain chemicals. The number of companies now subject to the TURA program fees has dropped to 468 as a result. At its peak in 1992, the program covered 728 companies in Massachusetts.

"It's ironic in that it is the program's success that causes us to be concerned,'' Mr. Geehern said. "When you accomplish your goals (as TURA has), they should declare victory at this point. Instead, this is a money grab, and not a way to further the original objective.''

Mr. Geehern noted that the remaining companies either sell chemicals, or have a production process that doesn't allow them to change the types of materials they use. Therefore, they must indefinitely remain on the list, and will be subjected to higher fees if they are implemented, he said.

Mr. Detarando, of Incom, agreed.

"In the private sector, when we have fewer customers, we must reduce our expenses. It must be nice to be able to simply force the customers you have left to pay the difference,'' he said. "We would quickly be out of business if we used such a heavy-handed approach. I guess when you make your own rules, self-preservation trumps common sense.''

Ms. Assad said the revenues generated will enable the program to provide resources for businesses such as training, supply chain efforts, research into safer alternatives, grants, and the dissemination of successful toxics use reduction strategies.

Four organizations are responsible for ensuring that the environmental and economic goals of TURA are met. They are the Department of Environmental Protection, through its Bureau of Waste Prevention; the Office of Technical Assistance and Technology; the Toxics Use Reduction Institute; and the Administrative Council on Toxics Use Reduction.

Tim Wilkerson is director of economic policy development and the regulatory ombudsman at the state's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. He is also a member of TURA's Administrative Council, and originally cast one of two votes against the fee increase proposal.

But a spokesman for that agency, Matthew Sheaff, said that Mr. Wilkerson's `no' vote was the result of a "very small procedural question'' about whether public hearings should be held before or after the vote.

"We are confident that both the needs of business and public health of the citizens of the Commonwealth will be met,'' Mr. Sheaff stated in an email.

Timothee Rodrique, who at the time of the vote was the chief engineer at the state's Division of Fire Safety, also voted against the fees. He could not be reached for comment.

Jack Healey, director of operations for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership in Worcester, pointed out that the TURA rate hike is the first since 1991, and the program has boosted the number of companies now using safer and less toxic materials in their operations.

"I'm not all that concerned,'' Mr. Healey said of the increases, adding that the fees are a "one time charge,'' and smaller businesses will be less impacted than companies that use the most chemicals.

But Mr. Detarando, whose company had more toxic material to dispose of than any other company in Central Massachusetts in 2013, doesn't see it that way.

When asked how his company has benefitted from the TURA program, he replied, "There's nothing I can think of.''
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Title Annotation:Business
Author:Gonsalves, Susan
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Oct 26, 2014
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