A Good Chemical Safety Law Depends on Us

March 3, 2016 | 9:27 am
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

It has been three years since the Senate first considered a bipartisan effort to reform the very flawed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Last year, both the House and Senate approved bills to improve TSCA. Neither bill was satisfactory. Both bills, as we pointed out in a recent op-ed, had significant flaws.

But we also saw a glimmer of hope. It remains possible for the House and Senate to agree on a final bill that contains the best elements of both bills. If that happens, the American public will benefit from a modestly improved chemical safety law that will help the Environmental Protection Agency do a better job protecting us from toxic chemicals.

Environmental_Protection_Agency_logo.svg (1)TSCA was passed in 1976. Since then only a handful of chemicals have been regulated and roughly 200 evaluated, even though tens of thousands of chemicals are sold in the U.S., and hundreds of new chemicals come on line each year. Chemicals pose a risk to many communities—but the danger is biggest for poor neighborhoods and communities of color. After 40 years of inaction, it is crucial that Congress does something to strengthen TSCA—and crucial that we get it right.

Our UCS members and supporters have been with us on this journey, letting their members of Congress know their concerns about the outdated and flawed current TSCA, and urging them to enact a strong reform bill. We have added our voices to the hundreds of thousands of activists who participate in the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition.

Our Center also enriched the debate through its examination of the considerable power of the chemical industry, and how it attempts to influence policy through its political spending and lobbying. We know some major players in chemical industry are pushing against reform, seeking a final law that produces the weakest possible result, and which will also block states from protecting their own citizens from harmful chemicals.

That influence often is measured in just a few words inserted at the last minute. The New York Times reports that a provision inserted in the House version of the bill would make it far more difficult for victims, states and local governments to sue big chemical companies, in particular, Monsanto, for the damage from chemicals that have been banned or tightly regulated by the EPA. This could interfere with pending or future lawsuits over PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, which had been banned by the EPA but were made by Monsanto. Other lawsuits concerning hexavalent chromium, asbestos, and PBDE, the flame retardant, also could be affected by this new and concerning language.

That is why citizen activism is so crucial. It is our best avenue for ensuring that ultimately, Congress listens to the people and legislates for safety.

The House and Senate must approve a final bill that gives the EPA both the authority and the resources to assess toxic chemicals and to regulate them. It must permit states to regulate these chemicals, until and unless the EPA acts. It must protect the rights of citizens and state and local governments to hold companies accountable for the damage their products caused. A final bill must also ensure that science-informed regulation is not hampered by unnecessary procedural hurdles that will slow down this important work.

For this reason, we continue our engagement on this important issue. More than 20,000 of our members and supporters have signed a petition urging members of the House and Senate who are negotiating a final bill to listen to the public, and not to the chemical industry. We will be delivering our petition to the House and Senate this week.

At a time when partisan gridlock is endemic in Congress, it is good news that Democrats and Republicans have worked together to strengthen our current chemical safety law. But bipartisan agreement only is valuable when it produces, in the end, a law that actually improves our environment and protects public health and safety.