Senate Committee Fails to Fix Flawed Chemical Bill

On April 28, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works reviewed proposed legislation from Sens. David Vitter (R-LA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our nation's primary chemical safety law. Despite numerous attempts to constructively amend the flawed bill, the committee failed to fix the legislation and sent it on to the Senate floor.

The Vitter-Udall bill was flawed from the start.

When Vitter and Udall introduced their so-called TSCA "reform" bill in March, they claimed it would improve current law by eliminating some of the analytical requirements that TSCA imposes on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and allowing the agency to move faster to restrict dangerous chemicals. However, when combined with damaging provisions that would weaken the existing law and override strong state protections, the proposal represented a step backward, not meaningful reform.

Revisions to the bill still block states from protecting their residents from toxic chemicals and don't do enough to improve federal law.

In yesterday's committee session, Vitter offered up a new version of the bill, which addresses some of the problems with the prior version. But the updated proposal still threatens to override state and local policies that restrict or ban the most dangerous chemicals and fails to establish deadlines for EPA to issue enforceable chemical safety rules.

The Vitter revisions prohibit states from adopting or enforcing a new chemical restriction or ban once EPA issues a plan to review a specific chemical of concern. This provision would apply to state actions taken after Aug. 1, 2015. States are also banned from taking any action on the chemical during this multi-year review process.

If EPA determines that the chemical is "safe," states are blocked – indefinitely – from restricting or banning the chemical, even if they have evidence that the chemical poses a risk to their residents. If EPA finds that the chemical is unsafe, states could take action, but only until EPA issues its own rule on the substance. While states can request a waiver from EPA so they can act to protect their residents, the Vitter revisions retain extremely stringent waiver requirements, and state requests are unlikely to succeed.

The committee voted down a number of critical amendments that would have strengthened the bill.

During yesterday's committee review, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Edward Markey (D-MA) offered several amendments that would have corrected the troubling state policy override provisions, established firm deadlines for EPA to adopt chemical restrictions, and required swift action on extremely dangerous chemicals. Vitter opposed each of these amendments, and none of them passed a committee vote.

After defeating the critical amendments, the committee approved the bill and sent it to the full Senate for consideration. Boxer said that she will continue to push for improvements to the bill and will introduce 27 amendments when the legislation comes to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

If the Senate passes the bill, it will move to the House. Its fate there is uncertain because Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) is poised to introduce his own version of TSCA legislation, which would also override many state chemical policies and fail to provide EPA the tools it needs to effectively safeguard the public from toxic substances. The House could choose to act on the Shimkus bill, take up the Senate bill instead, or somehow combine the two.  

Congress can improve our toxic chemical law, but only if it protects people and the states.

No matter how the legislative wrangling plays out, one thing is clear: neither bill represents real reform of our nation's chemical safety law, and the American people and the public interest community should continue to oppose the legislation until state policies are protected and EPA has the ability to take meaningful action to protect us all from toxic chemicals.

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