Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Long Road to Reforming America's Chemical Law May Soon Be Over

Earlier this week it was announced that Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and James Inhofe (R-OK) had reached an agreement on the long awaited update to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA was originally passed in 1976 and signed into law by President Gerald Ford. To say that it is outdated would be the understatement of two centuries. Reform has been a long road with many twists and turns, not the least of which is the first sentence in this paragraph.

Yes, the news was that Boxer and Inhofe had agreed on the TSCA reform law. The fact that Boxer and Inhofe have agreed on anything is news in itself, but the fact that the two of them are even mentioned in the same breath as this new law is amazing given that neither really had much to do with its development.

A quick recap. Late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) first introduced a formal bill to reform TSCA back in 2005. It never even got a discussion in committee. Neither did his re-try in 2009. His re-try in 2013 was introduced not long before he died at the age of 89. In the intervening weeks, a bed-ridden Lautenberg joined with Senator David Vitter (R-LA) to introduce a TSCA reform bill that was light-years away from the bill Lautenberg had just reintroducd. You read that right. A Republican from the petrochemical state of Louisiana introduced a chemical control bill with the man who had been fighting to reform chemical control for a decade.

After Lautenberg's passing, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) took over and actually worked very hard with Vitter to refine and improve the bill. After a few iterations (most of which were virulently opposed by Senator Boxer), they came out with a bill they named the "Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act." A completely different bill was introduced in the House, but that bill was considered a joke by everyone in the know, a fact that was obvious by its unanimous passing by both parties in a House where bipartisanship is considered an act of war. The House bill was merely to have something they passed so that the committee that reconciles the Senate and House versions into a law had something to sign off on. Given that Boxer and Inhofe, the two political powerhouses in the Senate, had the final say indicates what everyone knew - that the final version is essentially the Senate version with a few more assurances that states aren't completely blocked from dealing with chemicals that EPA has yet to rule on.

Which gets us to now. The conference committee has come up with a "reconciled" version that is expected to be passed by both houses of Congress shortly. The President has indicated he will sign it, perhaps with a big ceremony at the White House. Most people are happy - Republicans, Democrats, health and safety advocacy groups, chemical trade associations, and the consultants and lawyers who will make tons of money helping their clients comply with the law.

Now here is the slap in the face. The new TSCA law won't make us safer. As the article at the link notes:

The law itself won't make us safer, but the fact that we'll be focused on identifying and prioritizing chemicals to take a closer look rather than waving our hands in the air doing nothing...well, that focus will make us safer.

So congratulations to industry for getting a law that favors them passed. Congratulations for health and safety advocacy groups for getting a law passed that at least gets us beyond the distractions of doing nothing while debating a new law. Congratulations to Congress for wasting taxpayers money and time "debating" for 10 years something that is only getting passed now because industry thinks Republicans will lose control of at least part of Congress in the fall. Sure, that sounds cynical, but not as much as thinking Republicans in Congress are doing something for the public good.

The long road to reforming TSCA is not over. Now the work begins. The EPA will have to develop a way to implement a law while continuing to lose senior staff, having their budget cut frequently, and being harassed by Republican lawmakers/lobbyists on a daily basis. It will be EPA who will figure out how to improve the health and safety evaluation process for chemicals. May they survive the success of reforming TSCA.