Safety, corporate interests at stake in toxic chemical reform fight

House legislators are weighing public safety and corporate confidentiality as they begin to review the laws regulating toxic chemicals.

As the Senate considers new legislation to update the 37-year-old law granting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to test and ultimately ban dangerous chemicals, lawmakers in the House on Thursday began their own exploration of flaws in the current system.

Though the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has been largely criticized as ineffective for years, reforming it has been slow in coming.

House lawmakers on the Energy and Commerce's Environment and Economy subcommittee were hesitant to comment directly on the Senate's proposal, beyond noting its value in precipitating some sort of reform, but many Democrats were quick to pounce on the current law's failings. 

TSCA "has not lived up to expectations," said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the panel.

Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, added, it "is widely recognized to be a failure."

ADVERTISEMENT
Industry and nonprofit groups joined the chorus pushing for the law to be amended. 

In a statement, American Chemistry Council President Cal Dooley praised the subcommittee's hearing as a chance to explore "the need to modernize the law to better reflect today’s science and meet today’s needs."

Similarly, the American Association for Justice, a group of trial lawyers, wrote to the subcommittee heads that it "strongly supports" efforts to update the chemical law, though reforms should preserve peoples' right to challenge regulations. 

Among some of the complaints about the current law is a provision that grandfathered in all chemicals in the market when the law was passed in 1976. Health and environment groups called that a loophole that has allowed people to be exposed to dangerous substances for years. 

Of the 62,000 chemicals in existence before the law was passed, only five have been banned or limited. Among those the EPA tried but failed to ban is asbestos, a proven cancer-causing substance. A court ruled in 1991 the EPA had over-extended itself to prohibit the substance.

That sends a clear signal that the current law has holes, according to analyses by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

The oversight office also found that the EPA has had difficulty obtaining adequate information about chemicals' toxicity and sharing the information it has with foreign and state governments, which "potentially limits the effectiveness" of other regulators, said Alfredo Gomez, director of the GAO's natural resources division. 

Industry groups, however, worried that reforming the law to force disclosure of detailed chemical information could empower their competitors and hurt their bottom lines.

"Disclosure of chemical identity is all it takes to give away a competitive advantage to an offshore manufacturer," said Beth Bosley, president of the small chemical business Boron Specialties.

In May, lawmakers in the Senate introduced a bipartisan bill to update the law. That effort, led by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), has picked up support from senators in both parties and had been greeted with praise from the chemical industry, former EPA officials and a couple of environmental organizations.

That legislation, though, has been criticized by some groups for being too friendly to industry, lacking clear deadlines and ignoring vulnerable communities and populations. 

It maintains some of the protections on intellectual property that industry groups seek but, unlike current law, would require the EPA to screen all new chemicals coming into the market. 

Charles Auer, the former EPA official in charge of administering the chemical program, has supported the Senate proposal, but said on Thursday that imposing tests on new chemicals could hurt chemical companies. Not requiring them has "resulted in the U.S. leading the world in the innovation of new chemicals," he said.

The Senate measure would also require the EPA to assess chemicals that were grandfathered in under the 1976 law and test those it considers high risk.