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Congress is struggling to rewrite a law regulating industrial chemicals.

Congress is struggling to rewrite a law regulating industrial chemicals.

Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

After rocky road, U.S. Senate passes landmark chemical law overhaul

These days in Congress, not even strong bipartisan support seems to guarantee a bill’s success. But the Republicans and Democrats who backed a U.S. Senate bill to overhaul the nation’s environmental safety law for industrial chemicals refused to give up. Overcoming a thicket of procedural barriers, they won a signature victory tonight as the Senate unanimously approved, on a voice vote, an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

The vote puts Congress close to reforming one of the nation’s most maligned environmental laws for the first time in nearly 40 years. Both environmentalists and industry have assailed the TSCA, first passed in 1976, for being unwieldy and ineffective.

The Senate bill now stands alongside a far narrower, but still strongly bipartisan bill already approved by the House of Representatives. Lawmakers must still resolve differences between the two measures, and send a final version to the president’s desk.

Despite the potentially challenging road ahead, backers of the Senate bill celebrated after the vote. “I think it will be looked back on as a major environmental accomplishment,” said Senator Tom Udall (D–NM), who cosponsored the bill, S. 697, along with Sen. David Vitter (R–LA).

Under the current TSCA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t restrict a chemical’s use, or even request new toxicity data on it, without first proving that the chemical poses a certain level of risk. EPA also must factor in the potential costs of regulating a chemical in determining whether it is safe for use, and pick the “least burdensome” method of regulation.

Under the new Senate bill, EPA would no longer have to satisfy these cost-related requirements, and would have more freedom to take chemicals off the market or order companies to generate new toxicity data. With tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce whose safety has never been reviewed, the bill would task EPA with first reviewing the safety of chemicals that the agency deems as a high priority, in the tens of chemicals at a time. EPA would have to give even more priority to chemicals that don’t break down easily in the environment, accumulate in the body, or are already known to be highly toxic.

The House approved its TSCA bill, H.R. 2576, this past June on a nearly unanimous vote. S. 697, meanwhile, cleared a key Senate committee on a 15-5 bipartisan vote this past May, following a series of amendments designed to win over Democrats who worried that the bill favored industry interests and took too much power from state regulators. The bill has since undergone further tweaks designed to strengthen its bipartisan support.

Rocky road

Getting S. 697 to a vote of the full Senate would prove difficult. One major obstacle became Sen. Richard Burr (R–NC), who put a “hold” on the bill, saying he would allow a vote only if the Senate acted on an unrelated bill to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides money for land purchases. The Senate eventually renewed the fund and Burr lifted his hold, but then Sen. Barbara Boxer (D–CA) vowed to block a vote. She has led the opposition to S. 697, which has drawn criticism from some environmental and public health groups. Boxer’s hold was based not on the bill’s substance, Jason Plautz of National Journal reported, but on her desire to see the two chambers of Congress work out the differences between their bills in public.

Those concerns seem to have been addressed—though it wasn’t immediately clear what concessions were made to Boxer. In a statement after tonight’s vote, Boxer said “the bill has been vastly improved over the original bill, which in my opinion would have been harmful to our families, because it overrode our state laws and set up an ineffective and nonexistent way to regulate most toxic pollutants.”

Boxer indicated that she would fight for further changes. She has long pushed for language that would explicitly ban asbestos, for instance. “I have been assured that as the House and Senate bills are merged into one, the voices of those who have been most deeply affected, including nurses, breast cancer survivors, asbestos victims, and children, will be heard,” Boxer said.

With Boxer’s hold dropped, Sen. James Inhofe (R–OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, brought up the bill on the Senate floor tonight without any opposition. He and Udall called the vote a tribute to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ), who was once the Senate’s most vocal champion of overhauling the TSCA. The current Senate bill—which bears Lautenberg’s name—has its roots in legislation that Lautenberg worked on with Vitter in the previous Congress. Even though S. 697 still isn’t law, “I think Frank Lautenberg’s legacy has been fulfilled,” Inhofe said.


Reaction to the vote was generally positive, although many groups said they would still seek changes in the final version.

“Though improved, the legislation still has major problems,” said Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of more than 450 groups, in a statement. “For example, it weakens EPA's ability to intercept imported products, like most of the toys under your Christmas tree, when they contain a known toxic chemical. If reform is going to be credible, tricky, sneaky provisions like this will have to be removed.”

The Senate bill “will help ensure that companies won’t have to negotiate an obstacle course of regulatory requirements to alert consumers to the presence of a chemical determined to be harmless,” said William Carteaux, president and CEO of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, in a statement.

“[I]t’s worth savoring the present moment, brought to all of us by a rare amalgam of political risk-taking and courage, willingness to seek common ground and compromise, dedication to one’s key principles while acknowledging the legitimacy of others’, and countless days, weeks and months of plain old hard work,” said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, in a blog post.

In a statement, Jessica Sandler, a vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal rights group, noted her group supported the bill because it “contains important language to reduce and replace the use of animals in painful chemical toxicity tests. By modernizing the way in which chemicals are tested, S. 697 will enable better regulation of dangerous chemicals, thus protecting both people and animals.”