The EPA’s Common Sense Initiative and Its Legacy on the Finishing Industry

The Common Sense Initiative was the centerpiece of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s much-touted regulatory reinvention in 1994. Called a “bold experiment,” the EPA developed the Common Sense Initiative to address claims that its regulatory process had become burdensome, inefficient and costly.
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The Common Sense Initiative was the centerpiece of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s much-touted regulatory reinvention in 1994. Called a “bold experiment,” the EPA developed the Common Sense Initiative to address claims that its regulatory process had become burdensome, inefficient and costly.
The program set out to find “cleaner, cheaper and smarter’’ ways of reducing pollution and recommending changes to environmental management in six key industrial sectors, including metal finishing. The program was meant to build consensus between industry, environmental groups and the EPA in the implementation of environmental regulation. At the time, EPA Administrator Carol Browner heralded the initiative as “probably the biggest new direction in environmental protection since the founding of the EPA.’’ 
The goals were lofty. But were the outcomes? 
The four-year program was mostly deemed a failure, in part because of a burdensome process to achieve new rulemaking. A subcommittee of members of the industry, environmental groups, as well as local, state and federal agencies was established for each industrial sector. A consensus in that group was needed before a recommendation could be taken to the Common Sense Initiative Council. If consensus was reached at that CSI level, only then would a recommendation for change be taken to the EPA for consideration.
Despite the laborious procedures, there were some successes, most notably in the metal finishing industry. Several changes made because of the Common Sense Initiative remain in effect today.
One significant development was the National Metal Finishing Environmental R&D Plan that was published in 1997. That plan set priorities for the metal finishing sector’s research and development for pollution prevention and innovative technologies. It specifically recommended that research and development projects characterize emissions from metal finishing and the risks associated with those emissions. In addition, the plan assigned a high priority on reducing or eliminating emissions of hexavalent chromium, cyanide, chlorinated solvents and cadmium. It also sought development of methods or technology for off-site recovery of metals, acids and cleaners. Further, the plan recommended that the EPA develop a rapid verification protocol for new technology and more technology assistance to promote cost-effective technology or processes to reduce emissions.
The metal finishing subcommittee recognized that the 1997 plan was just the beginning of its concentrated efforts to promote research and development for pollution prevention and innovative technologies. The plan was updated in 2000 to review its progress and new developments in the industry. The update found that the highest priority should be given to nickel emissions, because nickel plating was becoming a prevalent alternative to cadmium and chromium operations.
The update confirmed the 1997 plan’s recommendations for hexavalent chromium, cyanide, cadmium and chlorinated solvents, and it also placed a high priority on technology transfer and a technology verification protocol. The update recognized that emissions and risk characterization were progressing in accordance with the 1997 plan’s recommendations.
Although the update served as the last report that officially tracked the implementation and progress of the 1997 plan’s recommendations, other official records document several research and development projects that were a direct result of the CSI process and the 1997 plan and that directly impacted the metal finishing industry.
One of the areas in which the metal finishing industry has benefitted from the CSI process is the characterization and analysis of nickel emissions from various nickel plating operations. The 2000 plan update added nickel emissions as a high priority research and development item to the list of recommendations set forth in the 1997 plan because nickel plating was rapidly replacing many of the chromium plating operations in the industry.
In 2004, the EPA conducted Phase I of its research on nickel emissions which included several stack tests for various types of nickel plating processes under several different operating conditions. The test results indicated that the EPA’s computer model for estimating emissions from electroplating operations was not accurately predicting nickel emissions. As a result, the EPA determined that it would be beneficial to conduct more stack testing using EPA-approved test Methods 29 and 306A.
During the subsequent Phase II study in 2007, the EPA conducted several additional stack tests to characterize and quantify nickel emissions for various types of nickel plating operations utilizing the EPA’s Methods 29 and 306A under different operating conditions. From these test results, the EPA determined that there were several ways to economically reduce nickel emissions and, in some cases, the reductions were significant. The Phase II study concluded that use of wetting agents, eductors and/or simple mesh pads reduced nickel emissions from various plating operations, with the type of plating operation determining which control option or combination most efficiently reduced emissions. Many of these low-cost control- and pollution-prevention options were implemented as a result of the CSI program and its aftermath.
The industry experienced similar results with respect to fume suppressants from hard chromium baths. During the Common Sense Initiative process, the EPA conducted research and development projects to evaluate various control technologies and fume suppressants to reduce chromium emissions to meet its Chromium Emissions MACT standard.
The results of the research and development projects showed that fume suppression was a viable low-cost control option to reduce chromium emissions, even to the extent that achieved compliance with the MACT standard. More importantly, the test results proved that fume suppression could be used in many instances without affecting the quality of the finished product. As a result, the research and development program provided a new alternative to existing high-emissions operating methods that once were thought impossible.
There are several other examples of research and development projects that were a product of the CSI program in addition to nickel emissions and fume suppression. These include: powder coating, biodegradable degreasers, pollution prevention and control technology for chromium electroplating, zero discharge, and an Environmental Technology Verification (ETV) pilot project. The ETV process still exists today for use in any industry.
While the benefits of each project varied, it is clear that the Common Sense Initiative did benefit the finishing industry and continues to do so through the use of proven technologies today.
Anthony J. Giuliani is a partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, and is a member of the energy and environment practice group. He can be reached at 513-723-4000.


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