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10/25/2012 06:57 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2012

Chemical Industry Uses Wallet To Block Tighter Regulations, Environmental Advocates Say

In an effort to block a ballot measure in California that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, shape a Senate race in Ohio with potential repercussions for fracking, and influence a host of House contests key to toxic chemical reform -- the chemical industry has been busy wielding its wallet, say environmental advocates.

New numbers support that assertion: Tens of millions of dollars continue to feed industry friendly causes and candidates this election season, with federal campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures by the chemical industry more than doubling since 2000.

"The more the truth has gotten out about the chemical regulatory system not working; the more the science has shed light on the consequences for American families as they bear the burden of problems linked to environmental exposures such as learning disabilities, childhood cancer and breast cancer; I think the more it has increased demands for change," said Andy Igrejas, national campaign director for the nonprofit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

"And industry has ramped up its spending to block such a change," he added.

The chemical and agro-chemical industries have generally argued that stiffer regulations would be overly burdensome to companies and costly to the country. Anne Kolton of the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for the chemical industry, said the ACC is "proud" of its efforts to "highlight the good work being done in Washington to grow the economy and create jobs."

Monsanto and other agro-chemical companies have invested more than $20 million -- on top of the food industry's nearly equivalent contribution -- for ads opposing Proposition 37, a California measure that would require labeling of genetically modified foods, or GMOs. Proponents of the bill have raised less than $8 million.

Meanwhile, chemical interests have spent some $375 million since 2005 to help elect and try to influence federal leaders, specifically in regards to a pending overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), according to a report released this week by Common Cause, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen's lobbying organization.

"It's been 36 years since they passed TSCA, and people are showing how it really fails to protect people," said James Browning, Common Cause's regional director for state operations and a principal author of the report. "Public health advocates are starting to win the fight, they have so much evidence on their side. Industry is realizing it needs to start spending more to stop it."

In July, the Safe Chemicals Act passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. First introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in 2005, the act would replace the TSCA and essentially reverse the burden of proof on chemical safety. In other words, chemicals would be required to be tested and proven safe before they are placed on store shelves -- something that it not the case today. The bill is now awaiting a vote from the full Senate.

The ACC, whose member companies' spending was included in the Common Cause report, has said it is committed to working on a bipartisan bill, but has also expressed concerns with the Safe Chemicals Act.

"As one of America's most significant manufacturing industries, we have a significant interest in seeing good policies enacted that will encourage economic growth and job creation including a balanced approach to regulation, a strong domestic energy policy and sound tax and trade policies, and we believe it is important to support leaders in Congress who share those priorities," Kolton said.

Overall, Common Cause found that chemical industry contributions in the current election cycle have gone predominantly to Republicans: 78 percent compared to 22 percent for Democrats. President Barack Obama received $217,283, for example, compared to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's $704,337.

The report, titled "Toxic Spending," also highlights how the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision opened up a new "avenue of influence" for the chemical industry in the form of so-called Super PACs. Chemical interests have given $23 million to these groups in the current elections, according to the study.

Browning noted that actual spending numbers are likely even higher due to incomplete tracking of ad spending and a surge of undisclosed contributions from nonprofit organizations.

This year, chemical interests are targeting a few key races, Browning said, including a heated Senate battle in Ohio. Josh Mandel, the Republican contender, ranks third among recipients of chemical industry campaign contributions, and has expressed plans to open up more land to natural gas drilling. Calls and emails to Mandel's campaign office seeking comment were not returned.

TOP 10 RECIPIENTS OF CHEMICAL INDUSTRY CAMPAIGN FUNDS, 2011-2012*chemical spending
Data compiled from CMAG/Kantar Media, the FCC, and the FEC. *Through Sept. 30, 2012

"Clearly, they see Ohio as pivotal and that race as pivotal," Browning said.

A Common Cause report from last year found people on Rep. Fred Upton's (R-Mich.) House Energy & Commerce Committee who voted for the so-called Haliburton loophole -- which essentially exempts the natural gas industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act -- received more than six times as much money from oil and gas companies as people who voted against it.

TOP 10 CHEMICAL INDUSTRY AD EXPENDITURES, BY RACE, 2012chemical spending
Data compiled from CMAG/Kantar Media, the FCC, and the FEC. * Data on Tommy Thompson from FEC reporting of spending by the American Chemistry Council (ACC). ** Expenditure on behalf of Sen. Scott Brown was paid for by the "Coalition for American Jobs," an entity affiliated with the American Chemistry Council and the American Petroleum Institute.

"There's a long history of industry throwing weight around and with it being successful," Browning added.

Stacy Malkan, media director of Yes on 37, hopes that doesn't end up being the case in California.

Efforts to get GMO foods labeled have so far failed at the federal level, and in 19 states. And now the Proposition 37 race, which experts anticipate -- if passed -- could lead to labeling nationwide, has been tightening in recent weeks after what had been a consistent two-fold lead. The latest poll numbers released on Thursday show the measure leading among likely California voters by margin of 44 percent to 42 percent.

The No on 37 campaign started rolling out ads on Oct. 1 that pointed out what they argue are shortcomings in the proposed labeling law and its potential to mislead consumers.

Malkan, in turn, calls the No on 37 ads "deceptive." And she calls Proposition 37 a "dramatic example" of "today's total full court press to buy elections as well as buy politicians."

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