Something's Coming, Something Good: Despite Chemical Industry Opposition, Safe Chemicals Act Gets Vote in Senate EPW Committee

Today, something good will happen here in Washington. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will vote on the Safe Chemicals Act, legislation introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg to reform the badly broken current law that is supposed to protect us from chemicals. The Safe Chemicals Act (S.847) would:

  • Direct chemical companies to produce health and environmental data for chemicals;
  • Require chemicals to meet a safety standard to remain on the market;
  • Give EPA greater authority to require testing of chemicals and to take action to protect the public from those that are unsafe;
  • Expand public access to information about chemicals, including their potential effects as well as uses and likely sources of exposure;
  • Ensure EPA decisions are made based upon the most up to date science and methods of assessing the risks of chemicals;
  • Promote action to clean up those communities that have been hardest hit by significant and disproportionate exposure to toxic chemicals.

The bill is the latest version of his efforts to reform the failed Toxic Substances Control Act which he has been working to reform since July 2005.  Prior to this effort, Senator Lautenberg authored the toxic chemical Right to Know law which requires chemical facilities to report their releases to EPA and the public.  He has also been a champion for enhancing security at the nation’s chemical plants, including pressing the industry to shift to the use of safer chemicals and technologies where possible to prevent the large loss of life and suffering that could occur in the wake of a terrorist attack.  And he created the Chemical Safety Board that investigates and determines the root causes of accidents resulting in loss of life at industrial facilities around the country. 

On all of these issues, Senator Lautenberg has been criticized and opposed by the chemical industry.  You can go back and look at the history of any of these efforts and here’s what you’ll find: the chemical industry claiming that his proposals are “too extreme.” The industry claiming that its own voluntary efforts are sufficient to address any concerns.  And the industry saying that he is “moving too fast.”

I mention this to provide a bit of context in advance of today’s committee vote on the Safe Chemicals Act, because both before and after that vote, the spin of the chemical industry and their allies in Congress will be that Senator Lautenberg “rushed” the bill to a mark-up.  And the industry will say – despite extensive modifications to address many of the industry’s stated concerns -- that the bill is still “too extreme.”  Most galling of all, the industry will say that Senator Lautenberg did not do enough to reach out to companies or members across the aisle. As people who have followed the path of the Safe Chemicals Act know (and as the trade press has diligently reported), Senator Lautenberg met repeatedly with industry representatives and reached out to dozens of Senate Republicans in an effort to work together on changes to his bill to win bi-partisan support.  He has been repeatedly rebuffed, including by some members who now are complaining that the process has not been bi-partisan!

Now, as  mentioned above, today there will be a “mark-up, ” which is legislative parlance for when bills are called up for discussion in committee and members file amendments that they want to offer to the piece of legislation under discussion.  That is the standard process for amending a bill, considering the ideas, perspectives and concerns of other members.  The Senators debate the proposed amendments, then they vote, and the proposed changes are either added to the bill, or they fail. That is the normal legislative process, not just in Congress, but more or less followed with local variations in every state legislature in the country.  In short: this is a perfect time for the opponents of Senator Lautenberg’s bill to suggest changes, make their case, and have real votes on their proposals for how to strengthen or modify the Safe Chemicals Act.  But guess what.  Only one amendment has been filed for the mark-up that will be voted on: essentially a one sentence amendment that would require EPA to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before taking any steps to regulate chemical under TSCA.  This would only serve to replicate the current language in TSCA that has left it useless, and EPA paralyzed, for 35 years.

Here is a sort of funny thing about industry’s complaints about the Safe Chemicals Act and the process: since 2005, -- someone correct me if I’m wrong on this -- the chemical industry has not put forward publicly a single substantive proposal on any aspect of TSCA reform.  The truth is, if the chemical industry was ever serious about being “for” TSCA reform --beyond that empty boilerplate recitation -- it would have presented some language to the public sometime in the last seven years.  No, the chemical industry simply wants to delay action for as long as possible – forever would be best. It will engage in, and even initiate dialogue, but only when it is advantageous to do so to achieve further delay. 

So, Senator Lautenberg got a “seven year itch” and called for a vote on the Safe Chemicals Act. All indications are that the vote will be on party lines.  The chemical industry and its congressional allies will then rush to declare that the bill is “dead” – meaning that it will not come to a vote in the full Senate before Congress adjourns for the year.  It reminds me of that Monty Python sketch: “Bring out your dead!” “I’m not dead yet!” where Eric Idle hits the “not-dead-yet” guy on the head with a club.  In this analogy, the chemical industry is hitting the not-dead guy with the club. But if the Safe Chemicals Act could talk it would say: “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!” In the decades-long battle between the chemical industry and public health, today is a clear victory for health, the environment, and strong science.

In truth, it is too early to tell whether the Safe Chemicals Act will reach the Senate floor this year.  There is no question that the public strongly supports reform that will require chemical companies to prove that their products are safe, and increase EPA’s authority to restrict the use of chemicals found to be unsafe.  There is also no question that the industry is going to unleash even more money, PR, and lobbying power to prevent the Senate from taking a vote on the Safe Chemicals Act.

You can be certain that the chemical industry is going to be speaking to every member of the Senate, urging them not to support the Safe Chemicals Act, and working overtime to ensure that it does not come up for a vote  -- the same way it blocked a vote on banning BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups.

Don’t let your Senators only hear from the chemical industry.  Call, write, email, text, tweet, and meet your Senator – in Washington DC or at home -- and insist that he or she co-sponsor and vote for the Safe Chemicals Act this year.  With your help, more good things can happen.  Could be, who knows?