LAYOFF NOTICES went out recently to employees at the state’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. They are among many victims of the state’s fiscal meltdown, but at a time when recycling workers in New Bedford are stricken by noxious fumes - to cite just one crisis involving chemicals - the state should think twice before lowering its guard against toxic industrial materials.
The workers’ departure also represents a broken promise to the business community. Twenty years ago, when the Legislature created the institute to help companies reduce toxic materials, lawmakers cut a deal with businesses. Firms using toxic chemicals would pay fees to fund the institute and related services. For several years, though, the state has been directing the fees, which amounted to $3.3 million in 2008, to the general fund. But at least the Legislature had appropriated enough to keep the institute going. Now that is no longer the case.
To ensure the institute can continue to protect the public health, about 40 state representatives requested $1.2 million for the institute in a supplemental budget. Even that represents a 27 percent cut. For the long term, lawmakers should revert to steering the industry fees to the institute.
The institute has been doing its job well. Since passage of the state’s toxics reduction law in 1989, use of dangerous chemicals has declined by 41 percent, toxic chemical waste has fallen by 65 percent, and emissions by 91 percent. Companies in the program recently reported that they had realized $4.5 million in annual savings on operations, largely because they no longer have to go to special lengths to maintain safety. The Legislature should understand that in a recession or a recovery, people and the environment still need to be protected.