Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), US government advisory committees must represent a fair balance of viewpoints. In November 1999, a US District Judge agreed with environmentalists that, in the case of the USTR's industry-only trade advisory committee on paper and wood products, the government had violated the law and were told to appoint environmental representatives. After that decision, environmental groups similarly asked USTR to add environmental representatives to its industry-only chemical advisory committee, but until this week the government refused and thus environmentalists filed suit again.
"The government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to allow but one health advocate among 34 chemical industry executives," said Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman. Their recent decision to finally abide by the law, is a step in the right direction and hopefully is a signal that such changes will be made in all industry-only committees."
However, the government's real commitment to the fairness law will be soon put t the test as the Chairs of the Chemical ISAC have filed a case in the federal district court in Washington DC arguing that the government had right to allow groups other than industry into the proceedings and that the USTR has violated their rights by temporarily suspending meetings pending settlement of the suit.
"This is an opportunity for the US government to put its money where its mouth is," said Mary Bottari of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. "The proof of the government's stated commitment to transparency and fair representation will be shown in how vigorously it defends its position against the chemical industry lawsuit."
The industry case to keep the doors to the committee closed is expected to be heard in the next few weeks. Both sides believe that much is at stake.
"This is not just a silly test of wills," said Jim Puckett, toxics specialist with the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange. "Crucial matters such as the global impacts of increased consumption of harmful chemicals, or long overdue implementation of a more precautionary approach to chemical use, remain unaddressed as long as the doors to government access are locked to all but conflicted interests."
The activists point out that other advisory committees on Tobacco, Mining and Energy that are extremely important to health and environmental concerns remain closed to public interest groups and operate behind closed doors.