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Treated wood industry fights back

A maker of arsenic-treated wood hires a political gun to fend off more regulation. He may be making a difference.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001


A maker of arsenic-treated wood hires a political gun to fend off more regulation. He may be making a difference.

TALLAHASSEE -- A year ago, the makers of pressure-treated lumber had little to worry about. The popular, long-lasting wood was hawked on TV by celebrities like Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden and University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier.

A pressure-treated deck seemed as harmless as a backyard barbecue.

But now, news that arsenic is leaking from the wood into back yards and playground dirt has the $4-billion-a-year industry facing a public relations crisis bigger than anything it has seen before.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, and in Florida, Wisconsin and Minnesota are seeking new restrictions on arsenic-treated wood. Florida regulators want the wood classified as a hazardous waste. The industry faces several pending lawsuits.

The wood, which contains a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, is banned in several countries. Now, some are calling for a ban in the United States.

One of the leading wood treaters, Osmose, has hired a big political gun to fend off more government regulation. He is C. Boyden Gray, a man intimately intertwined with the family of President Bush. Gray's father played golf with the president's grandfather. And Gray served for 12 years as general counsel to President George Bush.

Already, the strategy appears to be paying off. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would speed up a review of the risk children face from arsenic-treated wood, giving guidelines as soon as this month. But now, with no explanation, the EPA has slowed that review, saying it might be available by the end of the summer.

"I think it's under control," Gray said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "It looked as if there might be a too-quick decision out of EPA that would have created huge problems for the industry. Now, that seems to have been averted. I don't know if there's a crisis anymore."

Gray said he has not personally lobbied the EPA or the White House, but merely helped the industry "think through the problem."

Like any industry whose products are under attack, the wood treaters are carefully crafting their message. For years, industry officials said that the arsenic in the wood was leach resistant, meaning it wouldn't leak out much. But new studies in Florida and elsewhere show the arsenic does leak out. And a Florida researcher hired by the state says children may face an unacceptable health risk just from touching the wood during years of normal childhood play.

Today, industry officials readily acknowledge that the arsenic leaks out. Their new argument: The levels are too low to worry about.

Gray said that a chemical reaction inside the wood changes the arsenic compound, and when it leaks out, "it's something else. I've forgotten the name of it."

But Florida researchers are finding arsenic in soils near pressure-treated lumber. And a St. Petersburg Times investigation, published in March, found arsenic next to five wooden playgrounds, picked randomly around the Tampa Bay area. Every test came up positive for arsenic, sometimes several times higher than the levels that the state requires for cleanups at polluted industrial sites.

To deal with government regulators, the wood-treatment industry is using a tactic that worked before. The wood treaters are pledging complete cooperation with the EPA and have proposed putting new labels on the wood to inform consumers that they should wear goggles, gloves and a dust mask when cutting or sawing. The labels also advise people never to burn pressure-treated wood. The smoke and ash are toxic.

Health officials in several states have complained that the labels ought to say more, including having large letters that say WARNING: PESTICIDE, and a list of possible health effects.

The EPA and the wood-treatment industry have been down this road before. In 1982, wood treaters promised to do a voluntary consumer awareness program, but didn't follow through. The EPA never enforced the agreement.

The wood treaters worked hard to win favor with the EPA. In 1981, the president of a trade group, the Society of American Wood Preservers Inc., wrote a letter to then-EPA administrator Ann Gorsuch.

"Dear Ms. Gorsuch," wrote the association president George Eliades, "It was thoughtful of you to send me a photograph taken at the recent reception held by the Pesticide Users Council. I appreciate it very much. Despite the bad press you have been receiving lately, we think you are doing a great job and would encourage you to be steadfast in pursuit of the goals you have established under the Reagan Administration. We look forward to further contact with you in the coming months."

Gorsuch later resigned, after a scandal in which she refused to provide Congress with documents on federal toxic-waste cleanups.

The wood-treatment industry was also able to persuade EPA to give it a special exemption from federal hazardous waste laws in 1980, even though pressure-treated lumber has enough toxic chemicals in it to rank as a hazardous waste. Florida officials are challenging that exemption, concerned that arsenic will leak out of old treated wood that's buried in unlined landfills.

At a public meeting called by the EPA in June, consumer advocates complained that the EPA handed out information packets prepared by the wood-treatment industry. The EPA also asked an industry spokesman -- but not a consumer representative -- to sit at the head table. The agency also kicked television news cameras out of the public meeting, explaining that some participants would be "uncomfortable." The meeting was called to discuss better ways to inform the public of the pesticide in treated wood.

The industry is facing hard questions from regulators in several states, including California, Maine, Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Minnesota. For two years, the industry has fought off a law that would keep Minnesota's state agencies from buying arsenic-treated wood.

"The arsenic industry hired the top lobbyist in the state to make sure the provision was killed -- he was the former deputy commissioner of our pollution control agency," said Lisa Doerr of the Minnesota League of Conservation Voters.

Wisconsin is mulling a similar ban. Florida has declared a moratorium on any new arsenic-treated lumber in state parks, and a bill pending in next year's legislature would ban arsenic-treated wood in public playgrounds.

In Florida, the American Wood Preservers Institute, a national trade group, hired Tallahassee's top industry lobbying firm -- Hopping, Green, Sams & Smith. Last spring, that firm used its connections to set up a meeting between top industry executives and Frank Jimenez, a top lieutenant to Gov. Jeb Bush. The meeting was set up by a Tallahassee insider -- Dan Stengle, former general counsel to the late Democratic Florida governor, Lawton Chiles. Jimenez said the meeting was merely informational and the governor wasn't even briefed on it.

Bush made headlines when he announced he wanted the state's own wood-treatment plant in Raiford to switch to arsenic-free treatment. But industry lobbyists were able to kill most of the appropriation during this spring's legislative session, and now plant officials say they may not have enough money to make the switch.

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