Hopes rise for deal on chemical safety bill

K Street and environmental advocates say a landmark deal to revamp a decades old chemical safety law is within reach.

Senators have continued work on the Chemical Safety Improvement Act behind closed doors since the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who had been the bill’s champion.

Now that lawmakers in the House are taking a serious look at the bill, advocates and lobbyists are holding out hope for a breakthrough.
 
“People are trading language, having meetings and getting feedback,” said an industry representative who is lobbying on the legislation but unauthorized to speak on the record. “Just because it's going on out of the spotlight, doesn't mean it's not happening.”

The Chemical Safety Improvement Act would update the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) powers under the 37-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
 

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Although a House panel led by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) has held three hearings to explore gaps in the law, a hearing on Wednesday morning will specifically tackle what's in the Senate bill for the first time.

“[The hearing] does suggest that the House is getting ready to move on this,” said Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re hoping this hearing helps to build the momentum toward getting those negotiations going and … getting the package that everybody can live with.”
 
Industry groups and environmental non-profits alike have long complained about the current chemical safety law, which has never been seriously updated since its passage in 1976. 
 
“Every so often you have to take a hard look at what you've done,” said a Democratic lobbyist for a company involved in the talks. He says Congress is “setting the stage to get this done by the next year.”
 
Green groups argue that TSCA makes it too difficult for the EPA to review and ban dangerous chemicals, while businesses complain that the law is obsolete and creating a muddled patchwork of state and local laws.
 
Mark Greenwood, a principal at Greenwood Environmental Counsel, spent 16 years at EPA. He is representing the Chemical Users Coalition, a diverse set of manufacturers including Proctor & Gamble, Lockheed Martin, Intel, Honda and HP.
 
“The fact that both sides of Congress are engaged in thinking of whether there should be reform — and if so, what should it look like — is a fairly historic development,” he said.

The Senate overhaul bill, initially unveiled by Lautenberg and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) in May, has 25 cosponsors split nearly evenly by party.
 
Advocates say Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has taken the lead in pushing the negotiations forward by holding meetings with Vitter and outside groups to tackle remaining concerns.
 
The bill received acclaim when it was released, but some lawmakers and health and environmental advocates soon “realized that there are some pretty fundamental flaws in it,” said Andy Igrejas, the national campaign director with the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition.
 
Over the summer, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, declared herself among the concerned — namely over issues surrounding the possible federal preemption of strong state regulations.
 
Senate Republicans have seemed open to addressing some concerns about the bill. Vitter said in a hearing earlier this year that it was “never our intent” to preempt state laws.
 
The American Chemistry Council, which supports the Senate’s current language, says it would be open to some minor clarifications, but only to a point.
 
“It is a compromise already,” Anne Womack Kolton, a spokeswoman, told The Hill. “We would have concerns with any efforts to continually move the goalposts in order to undermine the very delicate compromise and the delicate, bipartisan coalition that’s come together to support the bill.”
 
Last week, Boxer told a trade publication that she “feels optimistic” that language can be included in the bill to mollify her concerns about preempting state rules.
 
As chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, her approval will hold the key to the legislation’s movement in the upper chamber.
 
“[Boxer] has the gavel and I think that a lot of other people, including some who are on the bill, don’t want to see it moved unless it’s fixed, too,” Igrejas said. “There [are] discussions going underway with those offices about how to do that.”
 
Wednesday morning’s hearing will be telling about the bill’s chances in the House, according many TSCA reform onlookers. The EPA’s chief of chemical safety, Jim Jones, is set to testify, as are Udall and Vitter.
 
“The story in the Senate is going from a very polarized situation to developing what is a remarkable compromise,” Greenwood said. “People are working together in a way that was not true a year ago and the fact that the House is having this hearing is important.”
 
Though Skimkus’ office told The Hill it doesn’t have a timeline for a House companion bill, a staffer said decisions would likely be made after Wednesday’s run-down.
 
“A lot of it happens after the hearing — our members will learn what the perspective is of the legislation good, bad ugly. Stakeholders and interested parties will then likely make the rounds in member offices,” a staffer said. “From there, we'll reassess and look at our opportunities to craft legislation.”
 
The Democratic corporate lobbyist said the meetings he’s been involved in on TSCA reform have given him hope.
 
“I'd much rather be lobbying this than immigration reform,” he said. “There are going to be hiccups and speed bumps along the way, but it's not insurmountable.”