Lawmakers upbeat over chemical safety fix

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House lawmakers are expressing optimism about a landmark Senate compromise to reform the country’s chemical safety law.

At a Wednesday House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, legislators were cautiously optimistic that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) could be overhauled for the first time since it was passed nearly four decades ago.

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“If enacted, it will represent the most sweeping set of changes to TSCA since the Ford administration,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the Environment and Economy subcommittee.

The hearing represented a major step forward for the chemical safety reform effort and raised the stakes for the bill’s consideration in both chambers.


“We’ve been hammering away at this for some number of years, and I actually think that, with the Senate bill and this committee’s efforts, we may be productive,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) added. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

The House panel’s openness to consider the Senate legislation did not mean that it was universally lauded, however.

One problem some Democrats have had with the Senate bill is that it might preempt states from enacting their own laws that are stricter than the federal standard.

“This bill does not yet address many of the current flaws and shortcomings. In some respects, it takes us backward,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the panel. “States should retain their rights to act in the best interest of their citizens.”

Critics have also worried that it does not sufficiently empower the Environmental Protection Agency or set firm deadlines for it to review chemicals. They say that it could also prevent individuals from bringing lawsuits against chemical companies and does not do enough to protect pregnant women and other vulnerable populations.

“It’s critical that legislation to reform TSCA include meaningful deadlines to ensure chemical reforms are completed on a timely basis,” said Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

To win his support, Tonko said that a chemical safety overhaul should protect public health, the environment and allow for businesses to innovate quickly.

“The Chemical Safety Improvement Act does not yet achieve the right balance of these important goals, but with additional work it could,” he said.

The existing TSCA law is widely criticized by industry organizations and environmental advocates alike.

They say that the law makes it too difficult for the EPA to act against dangerous chemicals, which has eroded faith in the federal government’s ability to safeguard the public. That’s led to a series of state laws that business groups say amounts to a maze of different regulations they need to navigate.

The Chemical Safety Improvement Act, introduced in the Senate in May, would require the EPA to evaluate chemicals already in the market and review the safety of those that it deems to have a high priority. The agency could then ban or restrict dangerous chemicals. It would also have the power to screen new chemicals before they are sold to the public.

Sens. David Vitter (R-La.), who co-authored the reform bill, and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) testified before the House panel on Wednesday to press for support. In the months since the bill’s other co-author, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), passed away earlier this year, Udall has emerged as one of the core negotiators on the Democratic side.

The legislation “is Sen. Lautenberg’s legacy bill,” Vitter said.

Vitter has repeatedly expressed openness to editing the legislation to address many critics’ concerns, and on Wednesday said that he and Lautenberg “never thought we had perfect legislation.”

Still, he said that the core of the bill, which had already been toughly negotiated, should not be gutted.

“I do want to urge that the Lautenberg-Vitter bill, which was the product of a lot of hard work and real compromise itself, is the core and the foundation that we build from,” he said.

Udall agreed that the bill provides the best hope for change, but said that “several key areas must be addressed for this legislation to be successful.” He added that many of the flaws in the original draft, however, were “unintentional."