Senate launches chemical reform push

Sens. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Democrats introduce bill to ban chlorpyrifos, other pesticides to protect farmworkers GOP lawmaker says he will oppose any attempts to delay election MORE (D-N.M.) and David VitterDavid Bruce VitterBottom line Bottom line The biggest political upsets of the decade MORE (R-La.) are introducing legislation to overhaul the nation's chemical laws, which are widely viewed as broken.

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Democrats, led by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), have long sought reforms to the Toxic Chemicals Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, though the effort has repeatedly stalled in previous years.

Unveiled Tuesday, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act forces the Environmental Protection Agency to base chemical safety decisions solely on considerations of risk to public health and the environment and eliminates TSCA's "least burdensome" requirement for regulating a chemical, which prevented the EPA from banning asbestos.

“I want to start with the fact the law is broken,” Udall said. “The agency ‘s not able to regulate and protect the public. This is a law that’s outdated and the administrator needs the full authority to be able to proceed under the law to protect the public and protect vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women.”

Democrats and Republicans agreed in past sessions on the importance of reforming the nation’s outdated chemical laws, but, in the past, the consensus has stopped there.

The Udall-Vitter bill, which has been nearly two years in the making, increases existing TSCA penalties from $25,000 to $37,5000 per violation and mandates the EPA conduct safety reviews of new and existing chemicals.

The bill will raise about $18 million annually through industry user fees to help the EPA pay for the costs of complying with the new mandates.  

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Ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerBottom line Polls show big bounce to Biden ahead of Super Tuesday Sanders poised for big Super Tuesday MORE (D-Calif.) who has been a leading critic of previous TSCA reform efforts. 

Though Republicans would be giving the EPA additional rulemaking authority – something the party is using trying to restrict – Vitter said it’s all in the name of compromise to create a rulemaking that all states can follow.

“We’re introducing this with eight original Republican cosponsors and eight original Democractic  co-sponsors,” Vitter said. “I am very optomistic about it getting over 60 votes in the Senate and the majority in the House.”

Udall said he’s working with the Rep. John Skimkus (R-Ill.) on similar TSCA reform legislation in the House.

Republicans have previously pushed for reforms that would require the EPA to evaluate the risk a chemical poses based on the nature and magnitude of the risk, impact on potentially exposed subpopulations, whether harm has already occurred, and the probability that harm will occur.

While Udall and Vitter said their legislation is a solid bi-partisan bill, they are prepared for criticism from environmental and health groups as well as colleagues like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) who has been a leading opponent of the reforms.

“No one got everything they wanted,” Udall said.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families called the legislation flawed.

“In its current form it would not make a big dent in the problem of toxic chemical exposure and would even do some harm by restraining state governments,” Andy Igrejas, the group’s director, said in a statement.

“While Senators Vitter and Udall have made some positive changes, the bill is not up to the important task of protecting public health. We plan to work with Senators from both parties to make the needed improvements.”