Senate Rivals Unite to Overhaul Chemical Safety Laws

A bipartisan group of senators reached a compromise on a measure to overhaul U.S. chemical regulation, creating an opening for the first major expansion of environmental laws in almost two decades.

After years of tussling over a revamp of the toxic substances act, Republican Senator David Vitter joined Democrat Frank Lautenberg on a bill to require safety testing of new chemicals and give the Environmental Protection Agency authority to ban chemicals, such as those used in detergents, flame retardants or building materials.

“This bipartisan agreement is an historic step toward meaningful reform that protects American families and consumers,” New Jersey’s Lautenberg, who has been pushing for legislation since 2005, said in a statement about the measure, which focuses on the health effects of using chemicals.

Vitter, of Louisiana, and Lautenberg are members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which must consider and vote on the measure. The measure is co-sponsored by 14 other senators, seven Republicans and seven Democrats. It also won an initial, qualified endorsement from the American Chemistry Council, which represents companies such as Dow Chemical Co. and 3M Co., and the League of Conservation Voters, which has pushed for stronger oversight of the industry.

Analysis, Labeling

If enacted into law, the measure would be the biggest change to this area of environmental law since the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, according to Andy Igrejas, executive director of a coalition of 450 health and safety groups pushing for tighter rules. Congress strengthened drinking-water protections that year, as well.

Under current law, the EPA can demand safety testing only after evidence demonstrates a chemical may be dangerous. As a result, EPA has only been able to require testing for 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals currently registered to be used in the U.S., and has been able to ban only five since the toxic substances law passed in 1976, according to the joint statement.

The legislation would require every chemical used in commerce to be analyzed and labeled as either a high or low risk. The EPA must conduct safety tests for materials that pose a high risk to health. It also gives the agency the authority to take action -- including a ban -- against chemicals deemed unsafe. It also would require testing of new chemicals entering the market.

The industry is backing increased regulation as it deals with mounting consumer concerns about the safety of products, said Cal Dooley, the chief executive office of the American Chemistry Council. “We think part of the decline in confidence is their belief that EPA doesn’t have the tools in place,” he said in an interview.

Compromise Measure

The proposed measure doesn’t deal with calls for enhanced oversight of safety in the manufacturing of chemicals following the explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas last month.

The measure is a compromise in that states will retain some, limited authority on chemical rules, which the industry sought to eliminate, and Lautenberg agreed to drop a special focus on communities where health problems tied to chemicals are especially prevalent, said Igrejas of the safety coalition.

“This suggests there is a bipartisan path forward on reform, but substantively there is still some work to do,” he said in an interview.

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