By David Heath, Center for Public Integrity
The chemical industry’s powerful trade group, the American Chemistry Council, has long maintained that it had nothing to do with an enormously successful but deceitful lobbying effort in state capitals to defend the use of potentially ineffective and toxic flame retardants in furniture.
Now, in a rare breaking of ranks, a top industry consultant is discrediting that story—and in so doing providing a window into the shadowy world of corporate advocacy and its use of front groups that aren’t what they appear.
After a Chicago Tribune investigation in 2012 exposed Citizens for Fire Safety as an industry group masquerading as a coalition of firefighters, educators, community activists, doctors and others, the chemistry council disavowed any affiliation with or support for the group.
The political consultant who ran Citizens for Fire Safety, however, says the council lied about its involvement. Grant David Gillham said the ACC helped create Citizens for Fire Safety and frequently coordinated with his organization.
“They flat out lied about it,” Gillham said in a recent interview. “They denied that they ever did anything with us.”
The American Chemistry Council—whose 153 members include powerhouses such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow Chemical, and DuPont—stands behind the accuracy of a past statement made by its president and chief executive officer, Cal Dooley, about having no affiliation with Citizens for Fire Safety. Now, however, the council acknowledges for the first time that it engaged in discussions and coordination with the group.
The council’s credibility is crucial as it currently works with a bipartisan group in the Senate to rewrite the law governing the regulation of toxic chemicals. The bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act passed a Senate committee recently by a vote of 15 to 5 and last week picked up 14 new senators as co-sponsors, virtually assuring it can pass the Senate.
Still, nearly every major environmental group opposes it, in part because the American Chemistry Council supports it.
“This is an industry that lies,” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. “I think at this point anybody would be foolish to believe them when they say they are serious about reining in the abuses that they’ve committed.”
Cook said he believes the American Chemistry Council wants Congress to gut the power of states to regulate toxic chemicals and give all control to an easily manipulated Environmental Protection Agency.
It was states such as California, Maine and Washington—as opposed to the EPA—that took action to curb the use of flame retardants. Virtually all Americans are exposed to the chemicals, which float as dust particles from seat cushions in a typical home. Yet scientific research has linked some of these chemicals to health problems such as diabetes, IQ deficits, fertility problems and cancer. Some scientists have also questioned whether flame retardants provide any significant benefit in protecting people from fire.
The American Chemistry Council says that the EPA “has identified approximately 50 flame retardants that it says are unlikely to pose a risk to human health.” It says flame retardants “can help save lives.”
In June 2007, a bill banning some forms of flame retardants passed the California State Assembly and was sailing through state Senate committees. At that point, three flame-retardant manufacturers decided to form Citizens for Fire Safety. Those companies were Albemarle Corp., Chemtura Corp. and ICL Industrial Products. The new group quickly flooded the state with television and radio ads. Gillham says it spent $22 million in 2007 alone to defeat the California bill.
California state Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, said the group used questionable tactics such as having burn victims and children give emotionally wrenching testimony even though they had no knowledge of flame retardants.
It also paid $240,000 in 2010 through 2011 to Seattle burn surgeon David Heimbach, who the Tribune reported gave false testimony about babies killed in fires because of the lack of flame retardants. The newspaper found that the babies Heimbach identified didn’t exist, a finding verified by Washington state’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission.
“I can’t say that I’ve seen in my 13 years in Sacramento anything as crass and as insensitive,” Leno said in a recent interview.
After Citizens for Fire Safety was discredited in 2012, current and former lawmakers in Maine asked the American Chemistry Council’s leader to expel the three flame retardant companies behind the group for engaging in unethical tactics. The council’s Dooley wrote back on June 5, 2012, denying any involvement with Citizens for Fire Safety.
“ACC is not affiliated with Citizens for Fire Safety, and neither ACC staff nor resources were used to support activities undertaken by the group,” he wrote.
Gillham, however, said he was called to the ACC’s Sacramento offices at 10 a.m. on August 23, 2007, in the old Senator Hotel across the street from the California State Capitol. Sitting behind the desk was an ACC executive. It was at this meeting, Gillham said, that he was interviewed to head the new group to be called Citizens for Fire Safety. He said it was made clear that he was not to reveal his association with the chemical industry.
Gillham’s job was to make sure a bill in California to ban flame retardants failed. On Sept. 12, 2007, the bill was defeated in the state Senate by one vote.
Gillham said he was paid by the three chemical companies and reported directly to their CEOs. But he said he was in frequent contact over a five-year span with the American Chemistry Council to coordinate activities. He said Citizens for Fire Safety directed all calls from journalists to the council, which also handled all scientific matters on flame retardants.
Gillham provided the Center for Public Integrity calendar entries of meetings with ACC representatives, email conversations and strategy documents produced with the council. Among them was a tentative ACC agenda or a two-day meeting in its Washington, D.C., offices in July 2011 to discuss flame retardant issues. Gillham is listed as one of the speakers on “US State Advocacy.”
Gillham says he’s going public because he believes the American Chemistry Council misled him about the safety of flame retardants. Last month, he stepped up to a microphone at a California State Senate hearing to announce his support for a bill requiring labeling of children’s products containing the chemicals.
Anne Kolton, vice president of communications for the American Chemistry Council, told the Center, “ACC has made clear that we did not provide support for Citizens for Fire Safety.”
But she said that the ACC did support the flame-retardant companies, and that part of that included talking to other organizations like Citizens for Fire Safety.
“It’s an example of coordination between two separate groups,” she said. “This is a normal part of our job to understand what’s going on in the environment and to talk to other organizations as needed.”
The council’s Dooley wrote his June 2012 letter in response to a letter signed by several Maine lawmakers, including one-time Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree. Told by a Center reporter that the ACC said it coordinated with Citizens for Fire Safety but didn’t support the group, Pingree laughed.
“It seems very much about semantics and not substance,” she said.
Pingree said she was shocked that Dooley would have sent the letter and that the American Chemistry Council was still trying to defend it.
Referring to three flame-retardant companies, Dooley also said in the letter that “ACC does not advocate with state legislatures or state regulatory agencies on their behalf related to flame retardant chemistries.”
Kolton acknowledged that the ACC lobbied against those bills, but said it wasn’t on behalf of the flame-retardant companies.
“We will get involved if there are important principles at stake or that it creates a bad precedent,” she said. “We will get involved if we think it will have negative ramifications for the broader industry.”
When asked what the important principles were, Kolton at first said she couldn’t remember. She later sent an email that said, “On your question of the principle at issue related to the California legislation—ACC opposed the bills because they sought to pass legislation related to a specific chemical without any consideration or review of scientific evidence by relevant experts.”
Leno, the California state senator, said the council was twisting the truth.
“These are very high-priced attorneys trying to further obfuscate and failing miserably,” he said. “They have been discredited, disgraced and dishonored. I don’t think they are believable in any way.”
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. To read more of their investigations on the “Politics of Poison”, go here or follow them on Twitter.