Hazardous chemical law overhaul would increase power of federal regulators

Federal regulators would have more power to restrict the use of chemicals deemed a health hazard under legislation that is likely to trigger a lobbying fight among stakeholders.

Lawmakers have sought to avoid a protracted special-interest battle by spending the year discussing with interested parties how best to update the oft-criticized Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976.

ADVERTISEMENT
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced legislation Thursday to overhaul the chemical law. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), meanwhile, introduced a “discussion draft” of their proposed legislation.

Chemical companies, which have pledged to work with lawmakers on the overhaul effort, called the new legislation in the Senate a good first step that included some of their priorities.

But the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s main trade group, also said it opposed some provisions, which could delay speedy approval despite the effort to get broad buy-in.

For example, Senate legislation may set too high a bar for chemicals to be deemed safe to use, said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of ACC.

Dooley said chemicals defined as hazardous could provide a public benefit in certain applications, such as chemicals used to make solar panels.

Dooley also said the association opposes a provision in the House discussion draft of chemical-use legislation that lists chemicals slated for an expedited review of possible health effects. Dooley said all chemicals should be evaluated by the same scientific process established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Despite the criticism, chemical companies say they agree with other stakeholders that the toxic substances act needs a serious update. Dooley added, though, that “all the stars would have to align” for a bill to reach the president’s desk this Congress with only around 60 legislative days remaining.

Environmentalists and health groups have long complained the TSCA is toothless and doesn’t provide EPA regulators enough power to restrict the use of hazardous chemicals.

One significant change called for in the Senate bill and the House measure is to change law so that chemical companies would have to prove that their chemicals are safe for use.

EPA now has to demonstrate the chemicals are unsafe.

According to a summary of the bill Lautenberg’s office released, EPA has only required testing for about 200 chemicals of the 80,000 in the agency’s inventory. EPA has regulated only limited uses of five chemicals.

Industry lobbyists say they are willing to accept tougher federal enforcement in exchange for the growing number of state restrictions on chemicals.

“We hope it can get done sooner rather than later,” said Keith Belton, a lobbyist with Dow Chemical Co.

Dooley said in the statement, however, that the bill “undermines business certainty by allowing states to adopt their own regulations and create a lack of regulatory uniformity for chemicals and the products that use them.”

A Lautenberg aide said tougher federal chemical laws will negate the need for states to act.

“Sen. Lautenberg is a strong defender of the states’ ability to protect their citizens from environmental hazards, and the Safe Chemicals Act does that,” the aide said. “But the bill would also provide certainty and consistency for industry by establishing a strong federal program that will ease the political pressure on state legislatures to pass their own laws.”

Environmental groups offered more support for the legislation but said they would work to strengthen it further by forcing the most hazardous chemicals off the market sooner.

“Changing the existing law would make a significant difference in people’s lives by reducing daily exposure to toxic chemicals,” said Daniel Rosenberg,an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.

The BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups, commended Lautenberg for introducing the legislation.

“Requiring the chemical industry to prove the safety of chemicals, and ensuring that workers are notified if a safety determination is not issued by EPA, are important to ensuring the health and safety of the public and workers,” the group said.

More in E2-Wire

Five threats to the EPA’s climate rule

Read more »