US chemical industry decides to clean up its deteriorating image

Image-wise, this has not been a good year for the United States chemical industry. Where once the advertising slogan ''better living through chemistry'' met with general public acceptance, the industry now realizes it has to go back to work to regain much of the trust and confidence that have been eroded recently. In fact, it is already bending to the task.

A sampler of the chemical industry's woes:

* Last spring the public was regaled with accounts of the allegedly cozy relationship between industry representatives and key officials of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Industry sources dispute the notion that there was a hand-in-glove relationship. But in the end, the EPA underwent a turnover in leadership, and those alleged to have been too friendly with the industry resigned under pressure or were fired.

* Dow Chemical stands accused by the EPA of reckless pollution of the waters around its giant Midland, Mich., base.

* Times Beach, Mo., remained in the national headlines for months because of widespread contamination by toxic dioxins.

* Indignant congressmen complained to new EPA chief William Ruckelshaus in June that the agency's own internal documents showed broad noncompliance by the chemical industry with the law regulating the handling and disposal of toxic wastes.

* In the past five months, more than $1 billion in lawsuits were filed against chemical companies in just two federal courts, Houston and St. Louis. The plaintiffs: people who claim they or their relatives were adversely affected by exposure to toxic substances.

* Congress is considering legislation that would enable persons who claim their health has been adversely affected by exposure to hazardous waste to seek compensation from the parties responsible for putting it there.

In remarks before a meeting of the Chemical Manufacturers Association Nov. 8, EPA chief Ruckelshaus told his audience:

''The public often sees industry representatives pursuing a strategy made up of delay, of making excuses, of avoiding responsibility, and of self-serving assurances that there is really nothing to worry about. If this strategy was designed to allay public fears and reduce the pressure on the industry, then it has certainly failed.''

Randal Schumacher, director of health and safety for the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) in Washington, concedes, ''We can't do without (chemicals), so we've got to figure out how to do a better job with them.''

Mr. Schumacher says the industry has decided to call attention to its safety record, its concern for public health, and its efforts in reducing hazardous waste.

Chemical company employees, he says, are three times safer on the job than those in other key industries in the US. In fact, the National Safety Council has rated chemicals the second-safest industry in the country after aircraft manufacturing. In addition, the chemical industry has $500 million in testing equipment and has conducted more than $135 million worth of health-effects studies over the past two years, Schumacher says.

According to a CMA survey released in September, the industry also now ''recycles, reuses, or reclaims about a half-ton of hazardous waste for every ton it discards'' - although only 46 percent of the CMA's member companies participated in the survey. Treatment of such wastes by chemical or biological methods or by incineration increased by nearly 60 percent between 1981 and 1982.

Moreover, Louis Fernandez, chairman of the board of the Monsanto Corporation and the new CMA president, told a congressional subcommittee hearing last month that the trade group supports reauthorization of the federal Superfund law with a more generous budget than the current $1.6 billion. The Superfund law expires in 1985.

This represents a tacit admission that the waste-site problem is greater than the chemical industry originally wanted to admit. There now are more than 540 sites on the EPA Superfund list, and Dr. Fernandez acknowledged that the number could rise to ''as many as 1,500.''

But the industry wants some concessions in exchange for its new attitude. One of these is a significant change in the way its share of Superfund money - now 85 percent - are levied. That share is now paid via a tax on feedstocks - i.e., oil and other raw materials. The industry favors taxing waste byproducts instead. This would broaden the base of those paying into the fund to include all whose operations produce a waste stream, such as electroplaters, dry cleaners, and service stations.

Congressional sources say such a change would threaten the stability of Superfund, noting that New York and California both experienced major drops in the quantities of waste reported to them within a year of adopting that taxing strategy. Consequently, if there is a change in the Superfund tax, it is considered likely that it will become a hybrid levy - part on feedstocks, part on waste.

The industry also would like the Superfund law to be reauthorized without the current ''joint and several responsibility'' clause. This establishes that one polluter of a dump site can be found liable for adverse health effects traced to the site even though other parties dumped the same types of wastes there. But the same congressional sources say this issue was one of the most hard-won in the Superfund law and that its supporters will not give it up without a fight.

In his testimony, Fernandez also said: ''I must note our concern over the potential for the so-called 'victims' compensation' issue to divert our attention from the task of reauthorizing the Superfund cleanup program. . . . We strongly urge Congress to consider the compensation issue in full light of scientific data which are now being developed by us and by others.''

At the urging of Ruckelshaus, the chemical industry has joined with representatives of the environmental community and the EPA in an effort to develop recommendations for speeding cleanup of waste sites. The group is said to be meeting frequently and expects to report its recommendations early next year.

''If it's a very general recommendation, it's not going to help,'' says a source familiar with the committee work. ''But these are pretty high-powered folks, and I would expect their recommendations are going to be useful.''

Says Glenn Paulson, vice-president of the National Audubon Society and himself a trained chemist: ''I would like to think that image is a consequence of substantive actions. The chemical industry as a whole has been at least as forward-looking as any in grappling with the hazardous waste problem.''

On the other hand, he continues, ''I do not see trade associations for the electroplating industry, the paint industry, the pulp-and-paper industry, and the electric power industry (all important generators of wastes) mounting campaigns to show what they've done to build treatment facilities - because they're not doing anything. Or at least not very much.''

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