Chemical Companies Consider Assault on Precautionary Principle
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Chemical Companies Consider Assault on Precautionary Principle

The chemical industry is reportedly considering retaining crisis communications specialist Nichols Dezenhall to mount an attack on California regulations that would require more stringent testing of chemicals.

Paul Holmes

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The chemical industry is reportedly considering retaining crisis communications specialist Nichols Dezenhall to mount an attack on California regulations that would require more stringent testing of chemicals.

In June, San Francisco last week became the first city in the U.S. to adopt what is known as the Precautionary Principle—a “safety first” approach to environmental, health and safety issues that poses serious communications challenges for corporations that hope to do business with or in the city. The Precautionary Principle shifts the burden of proof from opponents of new technological and scientific developments to manufacturers and proponents. In areas where scientific uncertainty exists it will demand evidence that products and processes are safe before allowing them to go to market.

Now a leaked memo from Nichols-Dezenhall to the American Chemical Council, obtained by activists at the Environmental Working Group, suggests the industry is preparing an attack on the use of the Precautionary Principle—although the Council, which represents manufacturers of 90 percent of the chemicals and most plastic resins sold in the United States, says it has not yet adopted any other of the memo’s recommendations.

The four-page proposal, reportedly outlines a strategy to “stigmatize” the pro-testing movement and create an “independent ... watchdog group” that would act as a pro-industry information clearinghouse. The strategy would also include protests timed with key votes in the legislature, the creation of a “non-business led coalition” to provide testimony against the precautionary principle, and “selective intelligence gathering” on industry opponents.

The memo also suggests using humor and satire “to demonstrate how, taken to its logical extreme, application of the precautionary principle would set Californians back to the Stone Ages.”

Nichols-Dezenhall is known for taking a confrontational approach to environmental and consumer activists. Both partners, Nick Nichols and Eric Dezenhall, have written books (Rules for Corporate Warriors and Nail ‘Em respectively) suggesting that activists take advantage of a culture of victimization to portray companies as villains.

“It was designed by us because of the business climate in California,” Nichols-Dezenhall vice president Steven Schlein told reporters. “That’s the way to wage a long-term public affairs campaign. You get supporters.

“The precautionary principle is based on fear, not science. A zero-risk policy based on mere allegation clearly turns the rule-making procedure on its head.”

According to Bill Walker, vice president of the Environmental Working Group, Nichols-Dezenhall is “known for creating deceptive, phony front groups. They go through people’s trash; they make a policy of hiring former FBI and CIA operatives. Their motto basically is that they’re not a PR firm—you hire them when you want to win a war.”

Thomas Metzger, spokesman for the ACC, says the industry would like to mount an “aggressive awareness campaign” but has done taken no action to this point. He added that “the proposal we got from Nichols-Dezenhall may have pushed tactics we weren’t comfortable with.”

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