A Bipartisan Breakthrough to Update Chemical Safety Law | Commentary
Congress is best known these days for hyper-partisan debate and gridlock. This is particularly true with bigger, national issues, including almost all involving President Barack Obama’s EPA. That why a recent breakthrough bipartisan bill that I’ve helped craft on chemical safety could become a really positive milestone and model — for modern environmental legislation and for a more functional Congress more generally.
Almost everyone agrees that the Toxic Substances Control Act, enacted in 1976, is highly flawed. It’s overly complex, creating unnecessary costs and delays that both endanger public health and make American producers less competitive. And it’s outdated, failing to take into account and leverage many of the significant technical advances of the past 37 years.
To address this need for updating and reform, I met and worked with the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, for more than a year. Finally, in May, we reached a comprehensive agreement and introduced the “Chemical Safety Improvement Act” with sixteen original sponsors, eight Democrats and eight Republicans. These include some of the most liberal and conservative members of the Senate, as well as members of Senate leadership. Sadly, Frank died just a few weeks later.
Lautenberg — a lifelong fighter and champion of public health and chemical safety reform — had tirelessly worked on this issue. As a longtime member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and chairman of subcommittees focused on toxics, he held frequent hearings and had introduced a chemical safety reform bill in each of the past four Congresses. Updating the law in this area was perhaps his top recent priority. And, though he has passed, passage of our bill will stand as a major part of his legacy, perhaps his crowning achievement.
Now Frank Lautenberg and I certainly had our ideological and policy differences. As a result, our compromise didn’t come easily; as I said, our meetings and exchange of proposals spanned over a year. And there were plenty of moments where either or both of us could have thrown up our hands in frustration and walked away. But we both felt this was far too important an issue to give up on. So we stayed committed to getting the job done.
Our bill is carefully crafted to address the long identified problems in current law. These include ensuring that, for the first time, active chemicals in commerce are evaluated for safety; giving the EPA the necessary authority to take action on chemicals it finds unsafe; screening new chemicals entering the marketplace for safety; requiring the EPA to evaluate risks posed to vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women; and allowing the EPA to secure necessary health and safety information to aid their safety reviews. At the same, our bill creates certainty for the producers of these products by making sure decisions by the EPA are based on sound science and are made in a very transparent manner involving stakeholders and states to the greatest extent possible.
As a result of this balanced approach, our bill has been endorsed by a wide spectrum of outside groups and experts — from the left and the right, the environmental, business and labor union communities. The supporters are too numerous to list exhaustively, but they include Sens. Tom Udall, Charles E. Schumer, Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins.
Now we’re in the homestretch. We are clearly within sight of passing this bipartisan breakthrough, and we need to get it across the finish line. Anything short of that would be a badly missed opportunity that would likely set efforts to reform and update our chemical safety law back for years.
For the safety of our families, for the health of our economy, and for the memory of Frank Lautenberg, let’s get this important job done.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg. He was not chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.