The New York Times reported yesterday that Senator Frank Lautenberg’s Sisyphean battle to improve federal regulation of chemicals used in U.S. manufacturing may succeed this time. Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey (who will retire this year), has offered bills since 2005 to address the anemic regulatory reach of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. As John Broder of the Times described TSCA, “the act purports to regulate potentially harmful chemicals in industrial and consumer goods, like plastic bottles and children’s pajamas. But the law is better known for its failures than for its successes. Of roughly 85,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, only 200 have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and fewer than a dozen — including polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxin and hexavalent chromium — have been restricted.”
This time Senator Lautenberg has teamed up with Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, to introduce the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013. According to industry publication HIS Chemical Week, both industry and environmental organizations support this bipartisan bill.
Other Senate co-sponsors include Democrats Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and Republicans James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine. According to Ernie Rosenberg, President and CEO of the American Cleaning Institute, “some of the industry compromises were hard to swallow, but most of the companies involved began the process with the assumption that industry would end up paying more for the TSCA process and have to do additional testing, but that was a better alternative to 50 state-level regulations.”
Each year since 2005, as TSCA reform bills died in committee or on the Senate floor, states have acted to fill in the regulatory vacuum. California led the way, with other states like Maine, Washington, and Vermont following with acts focused on children’s products or specific chemicals. As the state regulatory movement gained momentum, the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse was created in 2011 to coordinate policy and legislative efforts. One key question is how a new federal law would treat these existing state laws, permitting or preempting some or all of their provisions. Notably, Senator Barbara Boxer of California reacted in a lukewarm fashion to the Lautenberg-Vitter bill (having strongly supported earlier Lautenberg bills), expressing concerns about its impact on her state’s strong chemical safety regulation.
Overall the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 would require safety evaluation of all chemicals by the EPA, which would then label them as either high or low priority based on the potential risk. Based on this categorization, the EPA would have authority to prohibit or limit their use. Part of the risk assessment process would focus on vulnerable populations, like children and the elderly.
Two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), believe that this compromise bill gave up too much ground to the chemical industry while gaining only small improvements to the status quo. The NRDC’s senior attorney for public health, Daniel Rosenberg, stated that his organization could not endorse “the bill as currently drafted because it still leaves too many gaps in protecting the public. To cite just one important example, the bill establishes no statutory deadlines for the EPA to review chemicals or take appropriate action. This could mean that the bill ends up being just as much a dead letter as TSCA has proven to be.” Ken Cook, EWG’s president, oberved that “if you look at the bill Lautenberg was pushing last year, I don’t know if this is a retreat or a rout, but it’s somewhere in that range. We will be much better off pushing for improvements at the state level than surrendering to the chemical industry’s preferences here and now.”