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Path forward seen for chemical safety overhaul

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Lawmakers say they’ve cobbled together enough support for a bipartisan coalition to pass a long-sought update to the nation’s outdated chemical safety laws despite opposition from some Democrats and environmental groups pushing a competing bill.

The legislation from Sens. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterBiden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status Bottom line Lysol, Charmin keep new consumer brand group lobbyist busy during pandemic MORE (R-La.) and Tom UdallTom UdallSenate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes We can achieve our democratic ideals now by passing the For the People Act MORE (D-N.M.) comes after repeated attempts, led by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act
(TSCA), faltered in the divided Congress.

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This time around, proponents of the Vitter-Udall bill say, the effort is already gaining traction.

“We think we have a bill here that has industry support and some support from the environmental community,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “I think there is enough of a center here and enough recognition that we can’t afford to wait forever for one side or the other to come to the table.” 

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, unveiled last week, would force the Environmental Protection Agency to base chemical safety decisions solely on considerations of risk to public health and the environment.

It would eliminate the “least burdensome” requirement in the TSCA, which also factors in the costs associated with federal rule-makings and has kept the EPA from being able to ban asbestos. 

Already, the bill has attracted nine Republican co-sponsors and eight Democratic co-sponsors, including Udall and Vitter. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will take up the bill on Wednesday.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeJustice Dept. closes insider trading case against Burr without charges Biden pick for Pentagon cruises through confirmation hearing McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Okla.), said he’s looking forward to working with his colleagues to move the bill.

“This law has not been updated since 1976, and for the first time we have a real chance at bipartisan reform that will require a review of all active chemicals in commerce,” he said.

But some environmental groups are already calling for a presidential veto.

Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group president and co-founder, panned the legislation as written by the chemical industry. He argues it would block states from issuing protections against chemicals under EPA review, a process which could take up to seven years under the proposed legislation.

Udall spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said the bill reflects a bipartisan compromise that was reached after two years of working with both industry and environmental groups.

“We invited them to the table and they turned us down,” she said of the EWG.

In a press conference last week, Udall said, “no one got everything they wanted” in the bill. Opponents argue they got nothing.

In a statement following the bill’s release, Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerTrump administration halting imports of cotton, tomatoes from Uighur region of China Biden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status Questions and answers about the Electoral College challenges MORE called the bill “worse than current law.”

“In addition, the bill in its current form devastates the role of states in protecting their people, and the sponsors declined to ensure asbestos and children’s cancer clusters are addressed,” the California Democrat said.

Boxer countered with her own legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyDemocrats shoot down McConnell's filibuster gambit Biden signs executive order invoking 2-year lobbying ban for appointees Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (D-Mass.), two days later.

Their bill, the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act, requires the EPA to act quickly to consider a ban on asbestos and cements state authority to impose regulations on dangerous toxic chemicals. 

Supporters claim Boxer’s bill would finally ban asbestos, something they say the Udall-Vitter bill wouldn’t do.

But in a prepared statement Friday, Udall said his bill doesn’t single out any particular chemical because it gives the EPA authority to regulate any of the 84,000 chemicals in commerce.

“Our bill gives EPA the strongest possible authority to protect Americans from harmful substances like asbestos, BPA, styrene and other threats to public health,” he said.

And like Boxer’s bill, Udall said he, too, wanted to give states the strongest laws feasible.  But he said the language in his bill — which includes a provision grandfathering in state actions taken before Jan. 1, 2015 — was a necessary compromise to boost the bill’s chances of passing the Republican-controlled Congress.

“I respect what Senator Boxer wants to accomplish, but her proposal would ensure that states like New Mexico, which have virtually no ability to test and regulate chemicals, would never be protected,” he said.

Ben Dunham, director of the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP and former chief counsel to Lautenberg, called Boxer’s bill a “non-starter politically.”

“If you’re trying to be constructive you would engage in negotiations on the bill that has bipartisan support,” he said. “If you are trying to wreck the process you introduce a competing bill and try and take the approach she’s taking.”

With a Republican advantage in committee and eight Democratic co-sponsors, two more than the six needed to break a filibuster, Dunham said the bill has a good chance of passing the Senate.

“If the House takes up a different bill that could slow things down and complicate things a lot,” he said, “but the House can pass TSCA reform.”

As for whether the president would sign the bill if it made it to his desk, Dunham said he couldn’t see why not.

“All this does for the EPA is give it brand new tools and the authority to accomplish its mission in protecting public health and the environment,” he said.

A White House official said the administration has yet to develop a formal position on the Udall-Vitter bill, but has long supported strengthening and modernizing TSCA to give EPA the tools needed to protect the public.