Both chambers of Congress are suddenly stirring on how to protect the public from toxic chemicals. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has a marathon hearing on Wednesday with three large panels of experts. House Energy and Commerce has already conducted two hearings. Improbably, reforming our broken chemical law is emerging in this Congress as a thing that can get done.
The reason is the introduction of a broadly bipartisan bill, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, in mid-May. The bill was the product of an intense, short negotiation between the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, the longtime chemical reform champion, and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, generally considered a strong supporter of his state’s oil and chemical industries. Seemingly headed toward the gridlock of competing bills, the two sides were brought together by Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to negotiate a new one.
The mere presence of bipartisanship, of course, does not make the bill good and, in fact, it has serious flaws. Health and environment experts almost uniformly do not support it in its current form. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is right to air the issues in as full a way as possible and hopefully point a way forward. At the same time, you don’t need a program to know that broad bipartisan support is what it will take to pass something all the way through Congress. If it can be fixed, it provides a rare opportunity to make progress on an issue that our scientific and health authorities believe is increasingly urgent. So can it be?
I believe the answer is yes. The needed changes are critical but they are in the spirit of a more stripped down, bipartisan proposal than those that advocates such as myself have long favored. There will be red ink, but there need not be blood.
The current law, the Toxic Substances Control Act was doomed early on because too much red tape was placed in front of the EPA before it could even get started regulating chemicals. Once it did, the burdens were all on it, and none on the industry, making the process of preparing regulation cumbersome. Once the EPA tried, it was defeated in court, and effectively nothing ever happened federally with most chemicals. The fact that the TSCA did not restrict states’ ability to act became the law’s only saving grace.
Applying that history to the CSIA suggests the needed changes: simplifying processes to avoid red tape, adding deadlines, clarifying that the standard of review is strictly health-based, ensuring the best science is used to reflect real-world exposure to chemicals, and preserving a strong role for states.
The result would be a more modest program than what many advocates have called for, but a credible one. The EPA might review fewer chemicals, but those reviews would stand up. They would be able to get to the important step of restricting hazardous chemicals to protect public health. States could protect their citizens from a problematic chemical until and unless the EPA took meaningful action of its own.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.