Lawmakers gird for overhaul of out-of-date toxic chemical safety rules

Lawmakers in the Senate are staking out claims on a bipartisan bill to reform the nation’s decades-old toxic chemical law.


Support has built in recent weeks for legislation crafted by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that would update chemical safety measures that are considered woefully out of date. 

Lawmakers and outside advocates, however, worry the new bill could interfere with state laws and prevent people harmed by chemicals to take their grievances to court. 

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a marathon hearing with 19 witnesses to probe the merits of the legislation and highlight where edits are needed.  

Fireworks began to erupt between Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerHispanic civil rights icon endorses Harris for president California AG Becerra included in Bloomberg 50 list Climate debate comes full circle MORE (D-Calif.), the panel’s chairwoman, and Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterBottom Line Bottom Line Top 5 races to watch in 2019 MORE (La.), the committee’s top Republican and co-author of Lautenberg’s bill, as they debated whether protections in the legislation went far enough.

“I very much want to put this legislation on a fast track, as soon as we take care of state preemption, the right of victims and devils in the details,” Boxer said. “I, frankly, want to put it through many more hands so that I know what I’m doing and I’m not going to be pushed into a bill that hurts the people I represent and the families I represent.”

The more than 84,000 chemicals currently in the market are covered by the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that lawmakers and advocates of all stripes agree needs to be updated.

Efforts to reform the law have failed for years.

Weeks before his death, Lautenberg joined with Vitter to introduce a compromise bill called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) that would beef up regulators’ authority under the law while also protecting industry priorities.

The Vitter and Lautenberg bill would give new powers to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) by requiring that it provide new tests for any chemical currently in the market deemed to pose a “high risk” to human health and the environment, closing a loophole from the 1976 law that grandfathered in 62,000 existing chemicals without requiring new tests.

The EPA would then be able to take a range of actions against substances that are found to be unsafe.

Critics, however, have worried that the legislation is overly restrictive on state laws, and would prevent legislatures from enacting their own health, water and environmental safety measures.

On Wednesday, nine attorneys general wrote to the Senate expressing “deep concerns” that the bill in its current form could “seriously jeopardize public health and safety by preventing states from acting to address potential risks of toxic substances and from exercising state enforcement powers.”

“If we don’t fix that part, this bill’s never going forward, and I think that’s essential,” said Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 Senate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Howard Schultz to be featured in Fox News town hall MORE (D-N.Y.). “The federal government’s role is setting the floor, not the ceiling.”

One of the state laws that critics worry is at risk is California’s Proposition 65, which requires companies to notify the public about chemicals they use that have been determined to cause cancer or birth defects.

“I think it’s our job to set a minimum standards, but if states in their wisdom and the people vote for Prop 65, what right does anyone sitting up here have to overturn the will of the people in our states?” Boxer said.  

Vitter claimed that oversight in the bill was entirely unintentional.

“Frank [Lautenberg] and I talked specifically about Prop 65 and we never intended to neuter Prop 65 in any way,” he said.

He added that he would work with Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Energy: DC moves closer to climate lawsuit against Exxon | Dems call for ethics investigation into Interior officials | Inslee doubles down on climate in 2020 bid Dem lawmakers call for investigation into Interior officials over alleged ethics violations The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison MORE (D-N.M.) to write a new version of the bill that would make it “crystal clear” that the bill would not preempt those sorts of state laws.

“I think that’s a very good example of a misimpression or concern that was never our intent,” he said.

Vitter’s reassurance seemed to satisfy Boxer.

“I am so encouraged that we seem to have this bipartisan agreement that we’re going to fix preemption,” she said, adding that state attorneys general would need to approve the new language before she could support it.

Vitter also said that he would edit the legislation’s language to remove the possibility that it could be read to limit private lawsuits against companies with chemicals that have been deemed safe by the EPA.

“We’re not trying to shut down any private causes of action,” he said.

Nearly two dozen senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act.

Companion legislation has not yet been introduced in the House, but lawmakers in the Energy and Committee subcommittee on the Environment and Economy have held hearings analyzing the history and problems of the current law.

Outside analysts have also adopted cautionary tones that any significant bill, much less one that builds on years of hard-fought compromise, can advance through the current congressional climate.

But senators on Wednesday said that the Vitter-Lautenberg bill, once adjustments are made, had as good a chance as any. 

“I’m optimistic that we should be able to use that framework to pass legislation that can not only pass this committee but can be passed by the Senate and the House and ultimately be signed by President Obama,” Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Energy: EPA moves to raise ethanol levels in gasoline | Dems look to counter White House climate council | Zinke cleared of allegations tied to special election Democrats offer legislation to counter White House climate science council Dems face big questions on tax plans for 2020 MORE (D-Md.) said.

He added, “Let’s make sure we get it right this time because it may be 37 years until we get back to it again.”

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinManchin says he won't support LGBTQ protection bill as written Senators offer bipartisan bill to fix 'retail glitch' in GOP tax law Murkowski, Manchin call for 'responsible solutions' to climate change MORE (D-W.Va.) appeared before the committee to advocate on the bill’s behalf.

“Never once have I ever had a perfect bill before me,” he said. “I don’t know what a perfect bill even looks like, but I know when I decide to vote for a bill I ask myself three things: will this improve the quality of life for my constituents, is it better than the status quo and have we worked as hard as we can to preserve our core goals? For me, CSIA is a yes to all three of those.”