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Protecting the Public from Toxic Chemicals

A thing this Congress can get done

It’s no secret that Congress is having a hard time accomplishing things recently. Budgets. Nominees. Funding the government. If you can name it, it’s probably not getting done.

So – at least on the surface- it’s a little surprising that the issue I’ve worked on for years, reforming our nation’s chemical policy, has emerged as that rarest of birds: a thing that can get done. I say “on the surface” because the groundwork has been laid for at least ten years. And if you follow the politics of this issue you know that it appeals at the grassroots level to the Red and the Blue alike.

The reason is simple: the preventable cancers, birth defects, infertility, and learning disabilities linked to toxic chemicals affect American families without regard to their politics.

So what puts chemical reform in the can get done category?

The precipitating event is the introduction of a broadly bi-partisan bill, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, in mid-May. The bill was the product of an intense backdoor negotiation between the late Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey, the long-time chemical reform champion, and
Senator Vitter of Louisiana, generally considered a strong supporter of his state’s oil and chemical industries.

Lautenberg had his Safe Chemicals Act, with 30 co-sponsors, all Democrats, and the broad support of health and environmental leaders. Vitter was expected to introduce the chemical industry’s preferred version of reform. Things were headed toward the expected gridlock. Instead, Senator Joe Manchin – targeted by both sides for support- brought the two offices together to
negotiate a new bill.

The substance of the bill has had a mostly negative reaction from health and environment experts and with good reason.

It has significant flaws. However, a critical mass of those experts can also see a clear path to fixing those flaws and there is interest from Senators in both parties to do so. The result would a more modest, stripped-down version of reform than what many of us wanted in the Safe Chemicals Act, but still a significant improvement over our current failed policy. In the modern age of gridlock that would be good enough for government work.

The problems in the bill are fundamental, but each of them can be addressed within the spirit of the bi-partisan compromise Lautenberg and Vitter intended. Some simple changes, for example, would insure that EPA assessments of chemicals reflect real world conditions and therefore lead to meaningful restrictions that protect health and the environment. The procedural hurdles and legal red tape that doomed our current program can be further paired down. The role of state governments in the bill can be enhanced by
following a simple principle: that no state is prevented from restricting a chemical unless and until the federal government has taken meaningful action.

Good science. Less red tape. Federalism. These are bi-partisan concepts and the needed changes would only enhance them. 

As Congress tackles this issue it can look at the history of the current law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, for guidance of the “don’t let this happen to you” variety.  Probably no one expected that law to fail when it passed in 1976. Yet, it took EPA five years before it even got started trying to restrict
a chemical.

Then it took ten years for the agency to prepare it’s first regulation-of asbestos. Then that regulation was thrown out of court in 1991, effectively ending the EPA’s attempts to use the law. In the meantime, the fact that the states weren’t unduly restricted from enacting their own protections became that law’s only saving grace.

So Congress should get cracking with an eye on this history, applying common sense lessons from it to the Lautenberg/Vitter legislation.

Let’s do the thing that can get done.