May 24, 2013

New Alliance Emerges to Tighten Chemical Rules | New York Times

WASHINGTON — The first credible effort in years to revamp the nation’s outmoded chemical safety law grew in part from the Senate’s failure in April to enact a gun buyer background check bill.

Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who is 89 and in ill health, traveled to Washington in April for the first time in two months to vote in favor of the gun bill, sponsored by Senators Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Manchin was so grateful for Mr. Lautenberg’s appearance that he hugged him, almost lifting him out of his wheelchair. A few weeks later, when Mr. Lautenberg was looking for help in his so-far futile effort to rewrite the toothless Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, Mr. Manchin, a conservative with close ties to the chemical industry, helped corral Republican and business support.

“This bipartisan bill represents a dramatic improvement to our broken chemical law, and I appreciate the role that my friend Senator Manchin played in helping us reach this point,” Mr. Lautenberg said in an e-mailed statement.

Mr. Manchin’s service as go-between helped bring along Senator David Vitter, a conservative Republican from Louisiana and a strong advocate for the powerful petrochemical industry. This week, Senators Lautenberg and Vitter surprised their colleagues and groups that have been pushing for a new chemical safety law by introducing a bipartisan measure that could lead to the first major update to the toxic chemical law, best known by its initials, TSCA (pronounced Tosca).

The act purports to regulate potentially harmful chemicals in industrial and consumer goods, like plastic bottles and children’s pajamas. But the law is better known for its failures than for its successes. Of roughly 85,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, only 200 have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency and fewer than a dozen — including polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxin and hexavalent chromium — have been restricted

After a federal appeals court denied the E.P.A. the authority to issue new limits on asbestos in 1991, the agency all but abandoned its efforts to enforce the law, even as evidence of health problems from exposure to a range of chemicals in consumer products has piled up.

Mr. Lautenberg, who will not seek re-election next year, has tried since 2005 to update the law. But Republicans and the powerful American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical and consumer products giants like DuPont, Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical and Procter & Gamble, have stymied every effort. The council, led by Calvin M. Dooley, a former moderate Democratic representative from California, has pushed its own outline of a bill, which has never won Democratic support.

Mr. Lautenberg was determined to make one last effort at overhauling the chemical law, aides said. He introduced his bill again this year, with no Republican support. But a few weeks ago his staff began meeting with Mr. Vitter’s aides to see if a compromise could be fashioned.

What emerged was a bill that satisfied industry’s major concerns while allowing a number of Democrats, including Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, to support it. Republican co-sponsors include Senators James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine.

Some environmental and public health groups also signed on, although others have expressed reservations about provisions in the law or reject it outright.

Tellingly, Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the law, demurred. Ms. Boxer, who has supported Mr. Lautenberg’s previous bills, said this week that she would give the new proposal serious consideration but suggested that she had strong concerns about it. One of Ms. Boxer’s main considerations has always been whether any revision to the toxic substances law would pre-empt or undercut California’s stronger chemical safety laws.

The language on state pre-emption in the Lautenberg-Vitter proposal is ambiguous, allowing most state chemical safety measures to stand unless or until the E.P.A. takes action.

The bill would strengthen the current law, at least as enforced, by requiring safety evaluations for all chemicals, which would be labeled as either high or low priority based on the potential risk. New chemicals would have to be screened for safety, and the E.P.A. would gain the authority to prohibit or limit their use. The proposed measure would also require the E.P.A. to assess risks to vulnerable populations, but critics say this provision is weaker than in Mr. Lautenberg’s earlier bills.

Environmental and health groups gave the proposal measured praise. While calling the bipartisan bill a policy and political breakthrough, Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund said it lacked enforceable deadlines and did not give the E.P.A. the authority it needed to protect infants, children and low-income communities exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals.

Two groups with a longstanding interest in chemical safety, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group, said the bill gave away too much to the chemical industry in exchange for modest improvements to the status quo. They said they could not support it as written.

“If you look at the bill Lautenberg was pushing last year, I don’t know if this is a retreat or a rout, but it’s somewhere in that range,” said Ken Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group. “We will be much better off pushing for improvements at the state level than surrendering to the chemical industry’s preferences here and now.”

Mr. Cook said that under the proposed bill the E.P.A. would be required to analyze the costs and benefits of any proposed chemical regulation, a provision that he said would give an advantage to industry. He also said the bill would not assign priority status to chemicals that show up in the umbilical blood of newborns.

Mr. Dooley, of the chemical industry trade group, said that although he had some concerns about how the safety standards in the bill would be applied, he was “pretty comfortable with the balance that was struck.”

He said his group’s board decided in 2009 to try to find a compromise that would bring the law into the 21st century without jeopardizing the industry’s trade secrets or adding to its regulatory burdens. Only this year, he said, did the politics come together in Mr. Lautenberg’s impending retirement and desire for a legacy and Mr. Vitter’s ability to find Democrats like Mr. Manchin willing to support a bill acceptable to industry. “We’re delighted there’s a path forward, and we’re eager to capitalize on it,” Mr. Dooley said.


Source: John M. Broder