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Representative Fred Upton (R–MI), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have voted unanimously to advance a bill for overhauling the nation's toxic chemical regulations to the House floor.

Representative Fred Upton (R–MI), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have voted unanimously to advance a bill for overhauling the nation's toxic chemical regulations to the House floor.

House GOP/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Chemical regulation bill clears first House hurdle

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday began the process of updating the nation’s decades-old framework for testing and regulating industrial chemicals. A key House committee unanimously approved a measure to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, just weeks after lawmakers added provisions to address environmental and public health groups’ concerns. The bill still wouldn’t change the law as extensively as a similar U.S. Senate proposal, but it—along with the Senate measure—will likely face additional debate and revisions spurred on especially by outside advocacy groups.

H.R. 2576, which cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee on a 47 to 0 vote (with one abstention), now moves to the House floor, where it could face additional changes. Its passage comes on the heels of a Senate committee’s 28 April vote to send its own measure, S. 697, to the Senate floor. Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton (R–MI) says he hopes both chambers can get a final bill to President Barack Obama this year. “It’s a great accomplishment for something that really deserves a lot of attention,” Upton said.

If successful, this effort would represent the first time in nearly 40 years that Congress has overhauled TSCA, which lawmakers, industry officials, and advocates generally consider ineffective. TSCA’s critics point to what they view as inordinately high scientific and procedural bars for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prove that a substance is unacceptably dangerous or even to order new chemical safety data. As a result, TSCA critics say, EPA has reviewed just a tiny fraction of the substances on the market and pulled few existing ones.

Both the Senate and House measures would make it easier for EPA to test and regulate industrial chemicals under TSCA. For example, EPA is currently required to consider costs when assessing a chemical’s safety and choose the “least burdensome” way to regulate it. But the new bills would do away with this provision. Both bills also strive to make a more nationally uniform regulatory system, a key wish of the chemicals industry; require that chemical rules protect “vulnerable subpopulations” such as pregnant women and infants; give EPA more power to order new chemical safety data; and make it tougher for companies to shield chemical data from the public.

But the Senate’s measure is far more expansive than the House’s in certain areas. The House bill would leave intact the current system for screening new chemicals: Unless EPA can prove they’re unsafe, new substances are generally allowed on the market. The Senate bill, however, would usually bar new chemicals from entering the market until EPA signs off on their safety. The Senate bill would also call for EPA to create a scientific advisory committee for chemicals; direct it to sort chemicals into high- and low-priority categories; require the agency and companies consider using nonanimal forms of toxicity testing when possible; and set up a federal green chemistry research and development program. The House bill lacks these provisions entirely.

Both measures have bipartisan and chemical industry backing, but environmental and public health groups have been hesitant to get on board. With the exception of the Environmental Defense Fund, most environmental and health groups have opposed the Senate bill in favor of a rival measure offered by some liberal Democrats, S. 725. And groups like the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition have only recently said they might support the House bill if lawmakers were to strengthen it.

One major provision under debate in both bills is the role of states in regulating toxic chemicals. Hobbled by what they perceived to be federal inaction, many states—in particular California—have enacted their own laws to more strictly regulate toxic chemicals in consumer products. The Senate bill would bar these states from regulating “high priority” chemicals until the EPA could conclude its required safety assessments. That provision doesn’t sit well with Safer Chemicals, which argues that stricter state standards can compensate for federal inaction. In response to similar concerns, House lawmakers added language to their bill to keep current state regulations on the books. They also added separate provisions requiring tougher action on substances that easily persist in the body or the environment.

Still, Safer Chemicals and other advocacy groups want more changes. For example, they want House lawmakers to revise language that they say would require EPA to carry out every chemical review requested by industry, compared with a minimum requirement of 10 per year initiated by EPA itself. “This provision all but guarantees that the industry’s agenda for the agency will overwhelm the agency’s own agenda for chemicals that pose the greatest potential risk to public health and the environment,” Safer Chemicals Director Andy Igrejas and other environmental group leaders said in a 2 June letter to House committee leaders. Although lawmakers have tried clarifying the bill by saying that EPA won’t have unlimited resources to respond to industry requests, the committee’s top Democrat, Representative Frank Pallone (D–NJ), says he expects they will have to further modify the bill language.

Meanwhile, a number of Democratic state attorneys general are worried that the bill’s commitment to preserve existing state regulations is still too murky, Representative Diana DeGette (D–CO) says. And language repealing one burdensome TSCA requirement—that EPA demonstrate risk before requesting new safety data on chemicals—appears to apply only to mandatory chemical reviews. “Outside of risk evaluations that will now be directed specifically by law, EPA remains caught in a Catch-22,” DeGette said at the 3 June committee meeting.

The bill still has a long way to go. Lawmakers hope the full House will take up the measure late this month, after which they would have to sort out their differences with the Senate’s version. The White House, while outlining some TSCA reform principles, hasn’t endorsed any specific bill. Still, Pallone says he couldn’t have foreseen the progress that lawmakers have made so far. “If anybody told me a year or two ago, or even 6 months ago, that we could come up with a strong compromise bill,” he says, “I would have said that wasn’t very likely.”

*Correction, 5 June, 9:44 a.m.: The story was changed to clarify that it was the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee that unanimously advanced H.R. 2576, not the full House. The headline has also been changed from "Chemical regulation bill clears latest House hurdle" to "Chemical regulation bill clears first House hurdle."