Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Senate Moves TSCA Bill to Vote After Contentious Hearing

[Update: The Safe Chemicals Act has been approved by vote of the Committee on July 25, 2012] As noted yesterday, the Senate held a hearing on "EPA's authorities to control toxic chemicals." The hearing built on many previous hearings to gather information relevant to the reform of the TSCA chemical control law.  The hearing began fairly benignly but ended rather contentiously, with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) preparing for a markup of the Safe Chemicals Act bill today, July 25, 2012.

The hearing ostensibly was in response to an investigative series published recently by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune series argued that "two powerful chemical industries - Big tobacco and chemical manufacturers - waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation" of flame retardant chemicals such as the PBDEs. Witnesses during the hearing included Dr. Heather Stapleton, an expert on flame retardant chemicals at Duke University, and Marshall Moore, Director of Technology, Advocacy and Marketing at Chemtura, a manufacturer of PBDEs and one of the companies specifically identified by the Chicago Tribune.

In their opening statements the Senators offered reiterations of their usual positions. Democrats focused on the toxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation of PBDEs in particular and chemicals in general. Republicans, in particular Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and David Vitter (R-LA), expressed their disappointment that the Democratic majority of the committee was planning to bring Lautenberg's Safe Chemical Act bill to markup. Republicans felt that this meant the end of the "bipartisan" discussions in which Democratic and Republican members of the committee and their staffs had engaged for the year and a half since the introduction of Lautenberg's bill.

Democrats countered that the "bipartisan" discussions were going nowhere and it was time to get Republican views out in the open with a markup and committee vote on the bill. Lautenberg reminded his colleagues that he first introduced a version of the Safe Chemicals Act in 2005 and that over the last seven years there had been dozens of hearings, meetings, and consultations with Republicans on the best way to reform TSCA. All stakeholders have agreed publicly many times that TSCA is in dire need of reform, a position EPA acting Assistant Administrator Jim Jones reiterated in his testimony. Indeed, Lautenberg's Safe Chemicals Act bill has clearly migrated from a more NGO-approved (all data for all chemicals) approach in the original to a more Industry-friendly (prioritization) approach in the current version. The markup is an attempt by Democrats to put the Republican position on record given that passage of a TSCA reform bill is highly unlikely in this Congress, and perhaps impossible in the next Congress depending on the results of this fall's election.

Democrats were clearly frustrated with the Republicans during the hearing. This became especially evident during the second panel in which Senator Boxer repeatedly made it clear which witnesses were called by the majority party (Democrats) and which were called by the minority party (Republicans). Boxer also repeatedly praised the courage of mother and former Maine House leader Hannah Pingree, who had said during questioning that "the chemical industry does not always tell us the truth." Boxer similarly praised the work of fireman Tony Stefani, who heads a Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, which he started after he and his fellow firefighters were found to have higher incidences of the kind of cancers that he claims "are usually seen in workers in chemical manufacturing."

In contrast, Boxer several times addressed chemical manufacturing representative Marshall Moore in ways that can euphemistically described as "direct." She told Moore that "he needs to apologize" for "grossly distorting" a study on which he relied for demonstrating effectiveness and safety of flame retardant chemicals. Boxer also told Moore that "take a course in ethics" because the industry had set up a "phony fire safety group" (based on the charges in the Tribune series). Moore was remarkably calm and respectful given Boxer's direct accusations and insisted that his company and others had conducted and provided to EPA dozens of studies to aid the assessment.

The hearing demonstrated that TSCA reform, despite the repeated public assurances by all stakeholders that modernization was necessary and desirable, is likely not going to happen. As noted, while the Republicans expressed their disappointment that the bill will go to markup and probably to a committee vote, Democrats expressed their continued desire to work on a bipartisan bill, which they now believe can better be accomplished by an open debate on the Senate floor where each individual Senator would be able to put their views on record.

Of course, even in the unlikely event that a bill could be passed in the Senate (virtually all bills now must pass 60 votes for cloture before they can even make it to the floor for a vote), there is essentially no chance that the Republican-controlled House would even take up a companion bill.

More information and downloads of the testimony can be found on the committee hearing page.

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