WASHINGTON — Sen. David Vitter took his push to overhaul the nation’s chemical safety laws for the first time in decades to the House on Wednesday while the bipartisan legislation remains stalled in the Senate.
Vitter’s Chemical Safety Improvement Act is proposed as a compromise between industry and public health and environmental activists to fix the regulatory system set up by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 that allows thousands of chemical products to enter U.S. markets without proper oversight.
Vitter, R-La., met with members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a hearing discussing the pros and cons of the legislation and how to come to a palatable compromise.
The senator said he is confident that “We will achieve a final agreement that not only enhances business certainty and creates a strong federal chemicals management system, but also sets meaningful deadlines, protects the most vulnerable among us, effectively screens all active chemicals in commerce, guarantees Americans’ access to private rights of action and legal remedies and makes certain that (the Environmental Protection Agency) has the tools necessary to ensure the chemicals that we are all exposed to are indeed safe.”
Vitter sponsored the legislation with the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died in June.
The bipartisan bill has 13 GOP sponsors and 13 Democratic sponsors, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has stepped up as the Democratic leader of the bill since Lautenberg’s death.
Although all parties criticize the nation’s chemical safety regulatory system — the continued use of asbestos was repeatedly cited as an example — Congress has failed to come to a compromise on how to fix the problems.
Existing law gives the EPA relatively little oversight for approving or restricting products, while leaving much of the work to individual states. Private industry has sought a more uniform framework.
The bill would empower the EPA to regulate tens of thousands of chemicals that were previously “grandfathered,” as well as future chemicals proposed for commercial use.
Opponents have argued the bill does not do enough to protect vulnerable communities in places such as south Louisiana and it would weaken regulations in progressive states such as California that have already enacted their own chemical safety systems.
Critics also contend the legislation needs to implement tighter EPA deadlines, to define safety standards more clearly, and to keep the EPA from being mired in over-analysis that would stall the agency and weaken its authority.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is standing in the way of the bill, for now, citing concern that the proposal would “pre-empt” and weaken California’s more stringent chemical safety laws.
In that same way, Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said the bill “in some ways takes us backward.”
Vitter and Udall agreed the bill is not perfect and needs refinement. Udall is a lead sponsor but said he will not support it without amendments.
“Many of these problems are unintentional,” Udall said, noting that the current law is “one of the most ineffective laws on the books.”
EPA Assistant Administrator Jim Jones said the law needs changing, but so does the bill.
Jones said the further empowerment of the EPA on chemical safety is a positive change, but that the extra work likely will require more EPA resources and employees.
“I think it needs some improvement. There are aspects that are moving in the right direction and there are aspects that are not,” Jones said, citing the aforementioned complaints by critics.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, questioned the accuracy of the science the EPA is using in its rulings, noting that products could be restricted when they only have “marginal” potential impacts on populations with genetic predispositions for certain illnesses.
“No risk at all is in the eye of the holder,” Cassidy said. “The safety standard seems a nebulous thing to me.”
Jones said the agency has a long and successful record of calculating risk and determining what is “beyond negligible.”
Andy Igrejas, national campaign director for the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families nonprofit, said more work is needed to strengthen the proposal and fix the safety standards.
“EPA can still not ban asbestos in this bill, and that’s a problem,” he said.