Sustained Outrage

Last month, we reported about how West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was among the driving forces behind a compromise piece of legislation aimed at reworking the nation’s toxic chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. We said at the time (see also this blog post about Manchin laying low about his role in the matter):

Lawmakers in Washington have reached agreement on a potential compromise to reform the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is being credited with helping to forge the bipartisan deal.

The bill would, for the first time, require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. Currently, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act allows the vast majority of chemicals to remain on the market without any evidence of their safety.

The EPA has tested only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in the agency’s inventory.

The groundbreaking deal was reached between New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who, for years, has pushed a tough bill to modernize chemical protections, and Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who has been trying to build support for a more modest, industry-backed proposal.

“Our agreement shows that protecting our health and environment does not have to impede our economic growth,” Manchin said in a prepared statement.

Well, it turns out that maybe the legislation isn’t as great as Sen. Manchin made it sound — at least not according to a growing coalition of public health advocacy organizations.  Yesterday, dozens of those groups sent a letter to lawmakers about the Chemical Safety Improvement Act that Sen. Manchin is co-sponsoring. The letter — signed by groups including the Breast Cancer Fund, Greenpeace, Environmental Working Group, Healthy Child, Healthy World and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, says:

We respect and appreciate the efforts to identify areas of bipartisan compromise and consensus on chemical safety legislation. However, we believe that the resulting Chemical Safety Improvement Act, S. 1009, has serious limitations and will fall far short of our shared goal of safeguarding human health from the risks posed by exposure to toxic chemicals. As a result, we will oppose this bill as it is currently written unless it is amended to address our key concerns.

In a statement, the Environmental Working Group explained:

Specifically, the groups noted, the current bill doesn’t “explicitly protect women and children” or take into consideration “the cumulative burden of chemical pollution for residents of highly polluted communities and workers.” In addition, the industry-backed bill “sets no clear timelines to ensure EPA assesses hazardous chemicals in a timely manner” and “would not require that chemicals be found to be safe before manufacturing begins.”

Another letter, sent by more than a dozen California-based advocacy groups, voiced concerns over the legislation’s potential to preempt the state’s existing tough regulation of toxic chemicals. Several analyses of the Senate bill have concluded that it could leave California’s Proposition 65 toxic chemicals regulation law in tatters by giving the federal Environmental Protection Agency authority to supersede the state statute, which was created through a popular referendum vote in 1986.

In a third letter, 34 law professors, legal scholars and public interest lawyers with years of collective experience in public health and environmental law and a particular focus on state and federal toxics policy, also weighed in. In their letter and detailed analysis of the bill, which was sent to Congressional leaders, the wrote:

“In view of tomorrow’s hearing, we write to express serious reservations with the ‘Chemical Safety Improvement Act,’ which was introduced by Sen. David Vitter and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg on May 22, 2013, in an effort to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. Supporters have heralded the bill as a ‘historic step’ toward fixing our broken framework for regulating chemicals on the market. However, for reasons explained herein, we cannot support the bill as written, which must be strengthened to overhaul current law and ensure that chemicals are safe for people, particularly vulnerable populations such as children.”