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The Enemy of the Good

Written By:
Tom Julia
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The Enemy of the Good

"…the best is the enemy of the good." — Voltaire, La Bégueule (1772)

A dozen years ago, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) embarked on a regulatory process that resulted in groundbreaking limits on formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products. California's Airborne Toxic Control Measure (ATCM) went into effect in January 2009 and has altered the way industry does business around the world. Product emissions have dropped to historic lows, the development of new adhesive formulations has accelerated, and a global Third Party Testing and Certification (TPC) system has emerged to manage CARB's regulation and support its credibility in the marketplace. It is without question the toughest production standard in the world for composite wood panels and the products made with them, and gives unprecedented assurance to architects, designers and fabricators.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gazed on CARB's rules and decided four years ago to likewise assert its authority and develop a national standard for formaldehyde emissions from industry products. EPA began its process without any preconditions as to whether the federal rule should resemble CARB's, which gave all interested parties much concern. The Composite Panel Association, in partnership with the Sierra Club, intervened to assert that Congress ought to dictate to EPA that its rules must be consistent with CARB's insofar as the scope of products affected, emissions ceilings, and economic impact, and that the national standard should be enforceable for products sold in the US regardless of where in the world they were manufactured. In short order we were joined by an unprecedented coalition of business, environmental, labor and health care groups that shared this perspective. While motivations differed, all of us agreed that permitting EPA unsupervised latitude to develop a rule was a recipe for trouble.

We went to Congress and successfully lobbied for bipartisan legislation that specifically directed EPA's approach and scope, leaving the agency with modest discretion to implement the Congressional directive. The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2010, and EPA restarted its work on a regulation that Congress directed be completed by January 2013.

In May of this year, the EPA finally released its proposed rule for public comment. The rule is divided into two parts, one titled Third-Party Certification Framework for the Formaldehyde Emissions Standards for Composite Wood Products (the TPC rule) and the other titled Formaldehyde Emissions Standards for Composite Wood Products (the implementation rule). The comment period closes the end of August 2013 for the former and September 2013, for the latter. And there is much to comment about.

In its proposals the EPA has addressed many of the issues as instructed by Congress. Unfortunately, EPA has also substantially overreached insofar as how implementation of a national standard will impact the entire supply chain – particularly for fabricators of wood components and finished products, and for retailers who sell them. The agency's eagerness to so perfectly stamp out even the remotest possibility of noncompliance by expanding the scope of the rules will cause dire collateral damage.

The Enemy of the GoodIn CPA's view it should be enough to replicate CARB's successful approach, with some refinements that both the EPA and CARB can support. The EPA's striving for a "perfect" regulatory scheme proposes to turn thousands of small businesses in the United States (and around the world) into de facto composite panel producers with corresponding burdens for product testing and certification, bringing massive new manufacturing costs. Might such an approach result in a more complete regulation? Perhaps theoretically, but in reality it may cripple fragile domestic manufacturing that is just now emerging from years of recession. It may also result in product de-selection, and the unintended consequence of driving more domestic manufacturing jobs overseas where enforcement and oversight of environmental laws are less rigorous. Compounding the situation, even the most optimistic view of this unwarranted expansion would bring negligible public benefit.

"Without substantial changes, the proposed EPA emission rules could dismantle many good companies and derail what could otherwise be a reasonable and effective approach to national regulation."

By the time this column appears, the reader may have little or no time to express concerns to the EPA within the official public comment period unless it is extended. That should not deter you from reminding the EPA of the limited Congressional mandate, and that a highly effective national standard on product emissions, consistent with CARB's approach, should be the agency's chief goal. The EPA's new rules cannot be permitted to stand as proposed. Without substantial changes, the proposed EPA emission rules could dismantle many good companies and derail what could otherwise be a reasonable and effective approach to national regulation.

Please consider sending your comments to the EPA through the Federal Register.

IMPLEMENTATION RULE https://federalregister.gov/a/2013-13258

TPC RULE https://federalregister.gov/a/2013-13254

Tom Julia is President of the Composite Panel Association.

The Composite Panel Association (CPA), founded in 1960, represents the North American composite panel industry on technical standards, industry regulation, and product acceptance. CPA also operates a world-renowned testing and certification program for industry products. For a list of companies and products represented by CPA see DecorativeSurfaces.org and CompositePanel.org.

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