Penchant for secrecy - US & SA / Economic Protection Agency (26/5/2004)

A consistent pattern: disregard for inconvenient facts, a tilt toward industry, and a penchant for secrecy

The kind of regulators we have:
1.Economic Protection Agency


1.Economic Protection Agency

"EPA decisions now have a consistent pattern: disregard for inconvenient facts, a tilt toward industry, and a penchant for secrecy," said longtime Environmental Protection Agency official Eric Schaeffer, who quit the agency in protest in 2002. He was responding to a new decision to exempt wood products plants from controls on emissions of formaldehyde, a chemical linked to cancer and leukemia. In making the decision, the EPA "relied on a risk assessment generated by a chemical industry-funded think tank, and a novel legal approach recommended by a timber industry lawyer. The regulation was ushered through the agency by senior officials with previous ties to the timber and chemical industries," reports the Los Angeles Times.
SOURCE: Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2004 More web links related to this story are available at: http://www.prwatch.org/spin/May_2004.html#1085112002

Issued by: Oryx Media Productions
For immediate release:

Government functionaries responsible for managing genetic engineering in South Africa are too busy processing applications and issuing permits for new releases to comply with the Constitutional rights of other South Africans to know what they are doing.

It emerged in the Pretoria High Court on Tuesday that the Office of the Registrar Genetic Resources comprises just five people, two of whom are administrative assistants. Since 1999 the office had considered more than 2000 applications for new releases of genetically modified food and crops, and issued more than 1000 permits, Advocate Mervyn Ripp SC said. Advocate Ripp was appearing for the Registrar Genetic Resources, the Executive Council for Genetically Modified Organisms and the Minister of Agriculture in the application by Biowatch South Africa for access to information relating to the proliferation of genetic engineering.

Advocate Ripp said the information sought by Biowatch South Africa was so voluminous that the Office of the Registrar was incapable of delivering it. Mr Acting Justice Dunn said: "The effect of (this argument) is that because a particular state organ is understaffed people are going to be denied their Constitutional Rights to access information."

Advocate Ripp responded: "That's part of the growing pains of a democracy."

Advocate John Butler, for Biowatch South Africa, pointed out that had the Registrar's office responded to his client's initial request in 2000 for information relating to risk assessments, the number of documents required would have been relatively few.

Biowatch South Africa had offered to visit the Registrar's office to view the documents, and to pay for photocopying.

Putting the proliferation of genetically modified organisms together with Advocate Ripp's description of the staffing situation in the Registrar's office, Advocate Butler said Biowatch South Africa could ask legitimate questions about whether due attention was paid to environmental impact and risk assessments.

Biowatch South Africa launched the court application after repeated failed attempts to be granted access by the Registrar Genetic Resources to sufficient information to allow the organisation to evaluate if genetic engineering in South Africa is safe and compliant with South African law, the Constitution and international environmental standards.

Multinational seed and chemical company Monsanto, and two distributors of Monsanto products, the Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company and Delta Pine Company, subsequently joined the action as fourth, fifth and sixth respondents. They joined to ensure that their rights to commercial confidentiality were not infringed.

On the issue of costs, all the respondents apart from Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company on Monday indicated they would be seeking a cost order against Biowatch South Africa. But by Tuesday, only Monsanto was still pursuing the cost order. "There can be no respect in which we can be held liable for costs," said counsel for the multinational giant, Advocate Jerome Wilson.

Advocate Matthew Chaskalson, for the Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company termed the case "unfortunate" in the sense that an NGO attempting a worthy public interest initiative had been stonewalled by an uncommunicative bureaucracy. Biowatch South Africa was entitled to relief from the first three respondents, but private parties were also entitled to ensure their rights were not infringed.

Making the point that the matter was complex, Mr Acting Justice Dunn reserved judgement until the end of next week - if possible.

This statement was issued on behalf of Biowatch South Africa.

For more information please visit the Biowatch website at www.biowatch.org.za or call Vicky Stark at 082 786 4240.

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