House GOP pushes toxic chemicals reform

House Republicans are moving forward with a plan to reform decades-old chemical laws. 

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) introduced a discussion draft on Thursday that he says would strengthen chemical protections by, among other provisions, requiring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to focus on high-priority chemicals that pose the greatest risk to the public.

ADVERTISEMENT
“The vast majority of chemicals are low priority, and we really want to free up the time and energy to focus on the more important chemicals,” said Shimkus, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee that is working to update chemical standards. 

It is part of a longtime effort to reform the Toxic Chemicals Control Act (TSCA) from 1976, initially spearheaded by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). 

The reforms have received renewed attention following a chemical spill in West Virginia earlier in the year, which involved a chemical with unknown health risks, due to lapses in the outdated EPA regulations.

Shimkus touts the draft's ability to strengthen chemical protections and commerce, allow for regulatory certainty by creating national standards and to put more power in the hands of the EPA. But the draft has already attracted some opponents, in spite of Shimkus saying he intended for it to be a bipartisan measure.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the draft would weaken the country's chemical laws and “endanger public health,” in a statement released shortly after the draft was posted online.

“Bipartisan discussions have started and I'm hoping the draft can be significantly modified to provide the kind of reform that American families want,” Waxman said.

Some have already speculated that it would do nothing to help states identify unknown chemicals like MCHM – the one at the center of the West Virginia chemical spill from earlier this year.

The Shimkus draft keeps a fair amount of content from the reform bill being debated in the Senate, but revises some technical details, which public health and business groups are still reviewing.

“While we can’t afford to risk waiting longer and allowing further toxic exposure, we have to ensure the new law is rooted in smart policy,” said John Replogle, the chief executive of household products company Seventh Generation, in a statement. “The legislation should require public access to information regarding the safety of chemicals and the onus must be appropriately placed on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the chemicals they use are safe.”

Seventh Generation is a member of the Companies for Safer Chemicals coalition that was formed last year to push for chemical reform. 

He added, “We also must ensure that the federal government has the regulatory tools and financial resources to protect consumers and uphold the law. If these conditions are not met, we should urge Congress to continue work on the legislation until they get it right.”

Environmental groups say they are encouraged by the proposal – because it signals an interest from House Republicans to complete the outdated reforms – but pointed to “serious concerns” about the draft's potential to not “fix key flaws” with the TSCA regulations.

“This is a starting line in the House, not the finish,” said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement. 

“For the first time since TSCA passed in 1976, members of both parties in both houses of Congress are calling for reform and advancing specific reform proposals,” he added.