Senate Seems Poised To Advance 'Compromise' Chemical Regulation Bill

03/18/2015 05:56 pm ET
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WASHINGTON -- Senators traded some jabs at a hearing on chemical safety legislation Wednesday, but it seems likely that the bill will advance out of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The hearing focused on legislation that Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and David Vitter (R-La.) introduced last week to reform the 39-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, the law currently governing American chemical safety policy. Their bill is named after the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who had long crusaded to update the act.

The current law has long been criticized in and out of Congress for being out-of-date and too weak to adequately regulate the slew of chemicals now on the market. But the Udall-Vitter bill, which has more than a dozen bipartisan co-sponsors, has been touted as the first reform bill in decades that has a chance of passing.

The bill, Vitter argued at the hearing, "is the only realistic shot we have at reforming a very broken and dysfunctional system."

The bill would require safety testing for new chemicals, grant the Environmental Protection Agency more oversight to review the health and safety of chemicals, require chemicals to meet tougher safety standards, and create a list of high-priority chemicals for EPA to evaluate.

The bill has been criticized in many corners of the environmental and public health community for not going far enough, and for limiting states' authority to set their own rules on specific chemicals going forward if the federal EPA is already acting on them.

Udall defended the bill as the outcome of months of negotiations and bargaining between the co-authors and a variety of outside organizations. "Criticism of the substance of this legislation is legitimate from both sides -- it is a compromise product," he said.

Critics of the bill have argued that it was crafted with the interests of the chemical industry in mind, rather than consumers. That impression was furthered by a report earlier this week that an early draft of the bill Udall's office circulated was traced back to the American Chemistry Council, the industry's leading lobbying organization. Udall's office told Hearst Newspapers that the draft was written in the congressman's office, but must have been saved and sent back to them in the course of reviews with various stakeholder organizations.

Udall said the co-authors remain committed to getting legislation passed. "Sen. Vitter and I are not accustomed to working together on environmental issues," he said at Wednesday's hearing. "There were times when discussions broke down, but we always came back to the table because we shared a common goal."

The hearing featured representatives from public health and environmental groups. Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, testified that the bill could be improved in terms of its preemption of state authority and the timelines it lays out for EPA regulations, though she supports the updates to the decades-old law. "I do support this legislation, at the same time recognizing that there are avenues that could be taken to make it stronger," she said.

Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, also argued that the bill, while not perfect, is the "best chance in a generation to bring this law into the 21st century."

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh also criticized the bill's position on state rule-making, saying it would limit states' rights. The proposal would grandfather in existing, tougher state laws passed before this year, but prevents states from passing new laws on a chemical if the EPA is acting on that chemical. "Reform is needed, but that reform must be built on a foundation of meaningful protections of the public," Frosh said.

Bonnie Lautenberg, the widow of Sen. Lautenberg, spoke at the hearing as well and accused opponents of the Udall-Vitter bill of "letting the perfect be the enemy of the good."

But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) argued that the measure "is actually worse than the existing statute," holding up a list of 450 organizations that have opposed the bill as written. Boxer and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced their own competing legislation last week.

"I want a good bill. I don't want a perfect bill," Boxer said. "And we don't have it here."

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