Money to Burn 

Although flame retardants may pose health risks, the chemical industry has spent millions blocking attempts to ban them in California.

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Burson-Marsteller, one of the world's largest public relations firms, spent at least $6.6 million in California on behalf of a bromine industry trade group. In its lobbying disclosure report, the firm listed two flame retardant bills, AB513 and AB706, and lobbying activities "re: flame retardants" directed at Schwarzenegger's office and regulatory agencies, including the State Fire Marshal, the Bureau of Home Furnishings, and three environmental agencies.

The top flame retardant producers in the United States, Albemarle Corp., headquartered in Louisiana, and Chemtura Corp., in Pennsylvania, spent at least $412,000 on political donations and lobbying in California, according to the documents.

"Companies usually give money for two reasons," said Gary Jacobson, a campaign finance expert and professor of political science at UCLA. "They want a legislator to win or they want to buy access. Giving money opens doors."

Over the past few years, five bills, including one introduced by then state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), tried different approaches in an attempt to win the Legislature's approval:

AB513 would have outlawed a brominated flame retardant called deca (short for decabrominated diphenyl ether, or decaBDE). The bill, introduced in 2007, failed on the assembly floor.

AB706 would have prohibited all forms of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. AB706 made it through the assembly, but died on the senate floor in 2008.

SB772 in 2009 sought to exempt bassinets, nursing pillows, and other children's products from flame retardant treatments. The bill passed a senate floor vote but failed to win the majority needed to pass the seventeen-member Assembly Appropriations Committee.

SB1291 would have placed flame retardants under the regulatory control of the state's Green Chemistry Initiative. It also mandated review of new flame retardants before they could be added to consumer products. The bill failed on the senate floor by one vote in 2010.

SB147, introduced last year, tried a different strategy to reduce flame retardant exposure. Rather than restricting chemicals, it changes the standard. It calls for a smolder flammability test instead of the current open flame test so that manufacturers would not have to use flame retardants. The bill stalled in the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee in May.

Of the $23.2 million total, more than $22.5 million supported lobbying efforts by industry trade groups and public relations firms aimed at legislators and regulators. At least $18.3 million was filed under a nebulous category on lobbying disclosure forms called "other payments to influence." This loosely defined category includes office overhead and expenses, compensation to employees who engage in lobbying activities and fees to expert witnesses.

In addition, 85 state senators and assembly members received a total of at least $593,000 in campaign donations from the industry over the three election cycles in which the state considered the bills. Of that, at least $404,000 went to 53 senators and assembly members who voted against at least one of the bills, according to campaign disclosure reports filed with the California Secretary of State.

The top four recipients of industry money — all senators — each received more than $24,000. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) received nearly $28,000, Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino), received at least $26,000, and Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) received close to $25,000. Nearly $26,000 went to Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), who was indicted in 2010 on eight felony counts, including perjury and voter fraud related to filing a false declaration of candidacy.

In addition, at least $41,000 went to eight lawmakers who never voted on the bills, effectively killing four by denying the majority vote. Nineteen legislators who voted to regulate the chemicals received at least $100,000. Five who voted in favor of one bill and either abstained or voted against a second received more than $46,500.

Forty-eight legislators who voted to regulate the chemicals received at least $100,000. Seven voted in favor of one bill and either abstained or voted against a second. Of 47 legislators who took no industry money, 36 were Democrats and 11 were Republicans.

Although Leno's SB147 failed to pass a senate committee last spring, it remains under consideration. Hernandez and Negrete McLeod serve on the committee, along with Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), Bill Emmerson (R-Riverside), Committee Chair Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Hills) and Mark Wyland (R-Escondido). All but Corbett voted against SB147. Together, the eight committee members who blocked the bill took more than $100,500 from the chemical industry and its supporters since 2007.

Blakeslee was not available to comment and Walters' office said the senator "is not available to talk about this issue." Calls to Wright, Negrete McLeod, Emmerson, Price, Vargas, and Wyland were not returned.

Hernandez's legislative director, Annabel Snider, said focusing on campaign contributions detracts from the "real issue, which is making sure that chemicals used for certain products are safe and reviewed through a comprehensive process." She said the campaign contributions did not influence his votes. "Senator Hernandez feels a need to stick by a system that would do comprehensive review rather than just doing it piece by piece, and in some cases maybe putting an even more dangerous alternative in place of the chemical that is banned," Snider said.

Correa, who received at least $14,000 from flame retardant interests and voted against three bills, acknowledged that the public has a right to be concerned about contributions. "But I don't even look at the contributions I get," he said. "I send them directly to my treasurer." Correa said he voted against the bills partly because the science is inconclusive – "you've got papers on all sides" " – and partly because he worries about young burn victims. "You take the totality of the testimony and the danger of ever-growing concerns of environmental risk versus the real existing danger of children being burned. Seeing some of the horrible, horrible cases of children being burned in their cribs, that stuff is very powerful," Correa said.

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