Photo by Tom Hindman/Getty Images
In this photo from Jan. 10, 2014, leaking MCHN tanks at Freedom Industries are being off loaded into tanker trucks in Charleston, W.Va. West Virginia American Water determined that MCHM from the leaking tanks had overwhelmed the plant's capacity and contaminated the public water system for 300,000 people. TSCA now will require EPA to quickly review and regulate “high priority” chemicals, including chemicals stored near drinking water sources, and sets deadlines for companies to comply with new EPA rules.

TSCA Reform Heads to President Obama for Signature

June 9, 2016
Once thought to be the weak stepsister of U.S. environmental laws, the first major reform of the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act received Senate approval and heads to the president to be signed into law.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, on June 8 praised the final Senate passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The legislation, which includes sweeping reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), now goes to the president’s desk to be signed into law. 

“Congress has taken the final step to send the Lautenberg Act to be signed into law,” said Inhofe. “This historic piece of environmental regulatory reform is a great example of the Republican-led Congress working for the American people by enacting meaningful and commonsense legislation.”

The Lautenberg Act received bipartisan support from industry, manufacturers and several environmentalist groups. TSCA long has been perceived as one of the weakest environmental laws. Supporters claim the new law will create a better framework for regulating chemicals and that it gives the EPA more authority to test and regulate chemicals.

“Passage of this bill demonstrates that we can responsibly achieve regulatory reform, enact sensible environmental laws that protect the health and safety of all Americans, and simultaneously support job creation and economic opportunity here at home,” said Inhofe.

Reaction to Passage of Lautenberg Act Is Swift

Chemical industry associations and manufacturers praised the legislation, with Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemical Council calling it “truly historic.”

“This legislation is significant not only because it is the first major environmental law passed since 1990, but because TSCA reform will have lasting and meaningful benefits for all American manufacturers, all American families and for our nation's standing as the world’s leading innovator,” said Dooley. “The path to more modern chemical regulation has been decades in the making and it’s been over three years since work to achieve TSCA reform began in earnest. We look forward to the enactment of H.R. 2576 by President Obama in the coming days." 

Environmental and consumer advocates admitted concern about provisions in the law that suspend states’ ability to take action while the EPA studies a chemical’s safety. It would grandfather existing state laws and allow states to quickly act to regulate a chemical that EPA might deem a “high priority” chemical, but if a state fails to act quickly, state action would be suspended for up to three years while EPA completes its review. 

Carli Jensen, toxics campaign director U.S. PIRG (the Federation Of State Public Interest Research Groups), said in a blog that she is disappointed with the TSCA reform bill because it “preempts state action to regulate a chemical while the EPA is merely assessing its safety – a years-long process that will leave us all at risk. The bill also preempts state laws after the EPA has issued a final regulation, preventing states from enacting additional protections. When it comes to health protections, the federal government should set a floor, not a ceiling.”

In a May 24 blog post, Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney, and Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs, for the Environmental Working Group, acknowledged the legislations contains “some important improvements,” but added it “falls short of adequately protecting Americans from exposure to hazardous chemicals.”

“Is the bill better than current law?” they asked, adding: “It’s a low bar, because TSCA is widely considered the least effective environmental law on the books.”

Faber and Benesh praised the fact that TSCA now will require EPA to determine whether a chemical is likely to meet the safety standard before it enters the market, and that it will require the agency to consider the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children. It gives EPA new tools to collect data on chemicals and requires it to quickly regulate (or ban if needed) chemicals that build up in the human body and persist in the environment. TSCA now will require EPA to quickly review and regulate other “high priority” chemicals, including chemicals stored near drinking water sources, and sets deadlines for companies to comply with new EPA rules.

The bill doesn’t require adequate funding from the chemical industry, Benesh and Faber noted, adding, “Even the best law will be meaningless if EPA doesn’t have the resources needed to review the hundreds of dangerous chemicals already on the market…  Most consumers expect EPA has the power to quickly review the most dangerous chemicals and that the chemicals in their cleaners are at least as safe as chemicals in their food. The new bill fails to meet that expectation.”

SC Johnson, Chemical Distributors Offer Support

Speaking of cleaners and household chemicals, manufacturer SC Johnson said it applauds the passage of TSCA reform.

“This legislation is a win for families and I am thrilled to see it finally approved. This modernization of TSCA raises the standard for all companies and can help provide the public with confidence that the products they use in their homes are safe for their intended uses,” said Fisk Johnson, chairman and CEO of SC Johnson. “The strong bipartisan support of this legislation also sends a very positive message. I especially want to thank the Senators and House members who led this effort, and the Wisconsin members of Congress who supported the legislation.” 

SC Johnson has supported TSCA reform for many years, including testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2011 by Kelly Semrau, senior vice president for global corporate affairs, communication and sustainability. 

National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) President Eric R. Byer urged President Obama to sign the bill without delay, adding, “Forty years of operating under an outdated law and more than 10 years of attempts at reform have demonstrated that TSCA was in desperate need of improvement.”

Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), which serves as a global leader in ending asbestos exposure through awareness, prevention and policy, commented, “For too long, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 has failed to protect American families from harmful and deadly toxins, including asbestos. As a result of TSCA’s failure, asbestos remains legal and lethal in the United States, and as many as 15,000 Americans die every year from asbestos-caused diseases. It is clear that TSCA reform is long overdue.”

Under the new legislation, EPA has the clear authority to ban asbestos, a known human carcinogen. “Asbestos has been the poster child for TSCA reform and will be the litmus test for the efficacy of this bill. The EPA must limit delay by including asbestos in the list of the first chemicals it evaluates and quickly exercising its authority under this legislation to ban asbestos,” Reinstein added.

Referring to the years that TSCA reforms languished in Congress, Vice President of Government and Public Relations William E. Allmond of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates called the vote on the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act “a significant ending and beginning. It ends many years of elusive bipartisan compromise to reform our nation’s chemical control law and begins the process of regaining the public’s confidence in everyday products made possible by our industry.”

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