GOP, Dems 'quite a ways' apart on chemical reforms

House Democrats remain at odds with Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) over his plan to reform decades-old chemical laws, but say they are willing to work with him to strengthen health and environmental protections.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday the two sides are “quite a ways” apart on the Chemicals in Commerce Act that Shimkus introduced two weeks ago, after a hearing to consider the draft bill.

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“We think it's going in the wrong the direction, but we're hopeful because there's discussion going on,” said Tonko, ranking member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

Shimkus' draft bill is part of a longtime congressional effort to reform the 1976 Toxic Chemicals Control Act (TSCA) that was initially spearheaded by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). The reforms have gained steam since the West Virginia chemical spill called attention to lapses in the outdated EPA regulations.

Shimkus, chairman of the subcommittee on environment and the economy, says his bill would strengthen chemical protections by updating outdated laws, something that both Democrats and Republicans have called for. But the question is how each party wants to go about reforming the laws.

Among other provisions, Shimkus' proposal would direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to focus more attention on stopping high-priority chemicals from endangering the public, while shying away from less important chemicals that could distract the agency.

During the hearing, which Shimkus led, he expressed a desire to work with Democrats to make the necessary changes to get their support on his draft bill.

“Where is that common ground?” Shimkus asked.

“So far, I think we agree that there are many chemicals already in the market that could use some closer scrutiny by EPA,” he added. “We need to be sure the EPA has the information it needs to decide on the safety of a chemical, but they should not delay action merely by asking for information that they don't really need. We also agree that the EPA should have the authority to impose requirements and restrictions on chemicals that pose risks, but those restrictions should be for the sake of improving the protection of human health and the environment, not simply for the sake of regulating.”

Democrats complain there are too many loopholes in Shimkus' draft bill that could weaken the EPA's testing authority and fail to recognize advances in technology.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he is concerned about a “catch-22” that would require the EPA to identify risks before being authorized to tests for risks.

“This is the roadblock that has stymied the agency for years,” Waxman said.

Still, both Shimkus and the Democrats on the subcommittee say they are willing to work together and hopeful they can find a compromise. But they have a long way to go, Democrats say.

“We haven't made much progress,” Waxman admitted.