Energy & Environment

Senate sends chemical overhaul to Obama

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The Senate on Tuesday approved a bipartisan overhaul of the country’s standards for chemical safety, sending the bill to President Obama for his signature.

The passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act came by voice vote, two weeks after the House passed the bill and a decade after lawmakers first started working on the measure.

{mosads}The legislation gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sweeping new power over tens of thousands of chemicals, with new ability to order testing and regulate the substances.

It also significantly clamps down on states’ authorities in an effort to stop a nationwide patchwork of chemical laws that industry says is difficult to deal with.

It overhauls the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which lawmakers and advocates across the political spectrum have criticized as leaving the EPA toothless in recent years. It’s the first major environmental bill to pass Congress since 1990.

“This is long overdue. All stakeholders across the political spectrum agreed for decades that this aspect of the law needed to be updated,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a lead sponsor of the bill.

“We needed to fully protect public health and safety, which we all want to do,” he said. “We also needed to ensure that American companies, which are world leaders today in science, research, and innovation, remain so and do not get put behind by a regulatory system which is overly burdensome and unworkable.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, said the old law was woefully inadequate.

“Most Americans believe that when they buy a product at the hardware store or the grocery store, that product has been tested and determined to be safe,” he said. “But that isn’t the case. Americans are exposed to hundreds of chemicals from household items.”

Udall became the main Democratic sponsor in 2013, after the death of then-Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who had made a toxic chemicals bill his top priority for years.

The most intense negotiations over the bill took place over recent months, when lawmakers reconciled different bills passed by the House and the Senate.

One of the most important provisions of the bill mandates that the EPA decide whether to regulate a chemical based solely on its impact on human health and the environment.

The current law requires certain considerations of the cost of compliance, which has contributed to the EPA’s record of having regulated only five chemicals under the 1976 law. Asbestos is an example of a chemical that hasn’t been regulated, thanks to a 1991 court case.

The agency also gets new fees from the industry to pay for the reviews and must decide whether any chemicals currently on the market should be reviewed, among other provisions.

But the bill also overrides states’ authority to regulate chemicals, something that some states objected to, after they had taken the lead over the last four decades in controlling chemicals.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blasted the legislation shortly before the vote, complaining that it gives the federal government, and the EPA specifically, too much power over the economy.

“Federalization of regulation separates the people who benefit from a successful chemical industry from the unelected bureaucrats who will write the regulations,” Paul, a former presidential contender for this year’s election, said on the Senate floor.

“Once you sever the ties, once there is no incentive, once nobody cares about the jobs anymore, the tendency is to regulate and to overregulate.”

Paul also took aim at the EPA, which he blamed for destroying major economic sectors like the coal industry, abusing the power Congress granted it.

“More than a hundred times, this bill leaves the discretionary authority to the EPA to make decisions on creating new rules,” he said. “It’s a mistake.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, has also criticized the bill, saying it goes too far in blocking states’ power.

“While this legislation allows Vermont to continue enforcing existing state regulations to keep adults and children safe from toxic chemicals such as [perfluorooctanoic acid], it makes it more difficult for states to set new, stricter standards,” he said in a statement. “That makes no sense.”

The House passed the bill by a vote of 403 to 12.

The White House supports the bill, nearly guaranteeing Obama’s signature.

Tags Bernie Sanders David Vitter Environmental Protection Agency Rand Paul Tom Udall Toxic Substances Control Act
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