Chemical reform bill faces uphill battle in Senate

AP News
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Posted: Sep 13, 2014 8:51 AM
Chemical reform bill faces uphill battle in Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Efforts to come up with a new chemical regulation bill face an uphill battle in the Senate.

Over the summer, Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, provided a revised draft of their chemical regulation bill to committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, who told The Associated Press this week that the draft still falls short.

The original bill had been panned by some environmental groups, such as Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, who assailed it as "phony reform," although the Environmental Defense Fund supported its introduction as a chance for an eventual breakthrough.

At stake is a rewrite of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, known as TSCA, which is widely seen as an ineffective law to protect Americans from harmful chemicals.

While the new Senate draft hasn't been released publicly, Udall told the AP that it makes "big progress" in the safety standard; protections for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, infants, children and workers; and strong deadlines for the EPA to work through chemicals.

One area that remains outstanding, Udall said, is how much federal law should take precedence over state regulations, which negotiators will turn to next. States such as California, which have come up with their own regulations in the absence of federal action, have warned that the language in the bill could jeopardize dozens of California laws and regulations.

Boxer, a Democrat from California, said that the latest draft is still too sweeping in its nullification of state regulations. Udall agreed that the pre-emption language in the original bill is much too broad and needs to be narrowed.

The attempt to come up with new chemical regulation legislation has shifted from a Democratic bill, the Safe Chemicals Act in the previous session of Congress, to the industry-backed bipartisan Chemical Safety Improvement Act. The American Chemistry Council, a trade group which represents such chemical powerhouses as Dow, DuPont, BASF Corp. and 3M, says that reforming TSCA is its top legislative priority. The ACC spent nearly $6 million in lobbying expenses in the first half of the year.

Udall said that while he supported the Safe Chemicals Act, "without any bipartisan support and (with) wholesale industry opposition it simply couldn't move forward. A new approach was needed that could get the support needed to actually get it to the president's desk."

"The new draft is a giant leap forward from the last one," Udall added. "And most important is that it is a huge improvement compared to the law as it stands now, and as it has stood since 1976."

But Boxer, in her first public comments on the draft, said the draft doesn't make the changes needed to improve current law.

"The proposed safety standard does not clearly reject the ineffective standard contained in the original TSCA law that has resulted in very limited protection," she said. Boxer said timelines in the draft "remain extremely long — it is expected to take at least seven years before even a tiny fraction of the chemicals of concern are reviewed. This could leave nearly a thousand chemicals of greatest concern unaddressed."

Regulation of chemicals took on new urgency after a crippling spill in West Virginia last January contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents. The chemical in the January spill, crude MCHM, is one of thousands not regulated under current law.

Boxer said she'll be proposing a provision that will specifically address toxic chemicals that could threaten drinking water supplies.

The director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, Andy Igrejas, said that there's been progress made to improve the bill over the past few months.

"We have not seen a version that resolves all the issues leading to a clear improvement for public health and safety," he said, but added he was hopeful that negotiations among key senators could lead to such a bill.

Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said that there are incentives for both sides to have a stronger system.

"We're still optimistic that even if doesn't happen in this Congress, that all of that work that's been done provides a path forward to actually getting a bill passed," he said.

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