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Environment & Climate Change

Senators introduce competing bills to update chemical safety law

Rusty Tanton

Lawmakers want to overhaul our nation’s chemical safety law, but there’s a lot of disagreement about how to do that.

In the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

If officials at the Environmental Protection Agency want to ban a chemical, they need to provide a lot of proof that it’s harmful for us or the environment. As the EPA's Dale Kemery once explained to me, "EPA can ban chemicals if it can demonstrate that they present an unreasonable risk. This is a relatively high regulatory standard and requires a substantial amount of high quality exposure and hazard information."

The law we currently have on the books is 39 years old. It’s called the Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA. It’s been widely criticized as toothless and outdated.

Over the years, some lawmakers have attempted to update it, but nothing’s panned out. Now there are two competing bills in the Senate.

"So they're really trying to find a balance between doing something about it and doing something that's achievable right now."

The first bill, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana) last week. A few days later, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced a competing bill, the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act.

The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee held a hearing on the Udall-Vitter bill yesterday. As The Houston Chronicle describes, one of the points of contention for environmental groups and several states' attorneys general is language in the Udall-Vitter bill that would restrict the ability of states to regulate chemicals:

Much of the debate centered on provisions of the Udall-Vitter bill that would preclude states, in most cases, from being co-enforcers of chemical rules. At one point an entire panel of witnesses - including some who are supporting the bill - agreed it would be stronger without the so-called pre-emption language.

Reporter Sam Pearson has been covering these bills for Greenwire in Washington, D.C.

"The Boxer bill really goes further into what they would want, [but Vitter and Udall are] pretty up front about saying that [their bill] is a compromise, even Senator Udall has said that he doesn't necessarily have everything that he wanted in it but he's trying to find something that will pass," said Pearson.

"So they're really trying to find a balance between doing something about it and doing something that's achievable right now."

Granting the EPA more authority

One of the major criticisms of the current chemical law is that the Environmental Protection Agency has not been able to completely ban substances such as asbestos, a known carcinogen. Pearson says that the bills differ in how they address this particular issue.

"Senator Boxer has been saying how her bill would actually specifically list asbestos to be required to be added to the high priority chemical list immediately and then the Udall bill, in theory, would give [the EPA] discretion, whether they want to do that or not. It's possible that [the EPA] would consider that a priority given how much history there is."

There’s been some controversy this week about the American Chemistry Council’s involvement with the Udall-Vitter bill. As the San Franscisco Chronicle reported:

In recent days, a draft of the bill — considered the product of more than two years of negotiation and collaboration between Sen. David Vitter, R-La., Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and both chemical industry and environmental groups — was circulated by Udall’s office ahead of the hearing. The draft bill, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, is in the form of a Microsoft Word document. Rudimentary digital forensics — going to “advanced properties” in Word — shows the “company” of origin to be the American Chemistry Council. On Monday, ACC spokeswoman and vice president Anne Kolter said, “It doesn’t mean the original document was generated here. Anyone could have put that (digital signature) in there. You could change it.” Asked if that meant she was denying ACC wrote the document, she said, “I have no idea. ... There’s no way for anyone to tell.”

The ACC is the main lobbyist for the chemical industry and they’re backing the Udall-Vitter bill. Pearson says the ACC wants one set of federal rules.

"[The Council] said that they want to kind of want to even out the regulations more, so they say that preemption is important to them because they want to try to make things more consistent across all the states and not have different rules in every state."

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