States worry that federal action could limit their control of chemicals

07/30/2013 3:15 PM

07/30/2013 4:18 PM

It sounds good: the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, a proposed law with bipartisan support giving the Environmental Protection Agency more authority to regulate dangerous chemicals.

The bill aims to give the EPA more tools to collect health and safety information on chemicals, screen them for safety and require risk management when chemicals cannot be proven safe.

But consumer groups and health advocates say it doesn’t go far enough, and that it could undermine efforts in some states to enact stronger laws that screen potentially toxic chemicals even as federal standards lag.

The industry, regulators and consumer groups will press for chemical policy reform on Wednesday at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing. The session is to focus on potential health threats posed by exposure to toxic chemicals and how to update the Toxic Substances Control Act.

California regulators, in particular, say the legislation could pre-empt tougher state laws there to protect consumers from toxins.

It could “seriously jeopardize public health and safety by preventing states from acting to address potential risks of toxic substances and from exercising state enforcement powers,” wrote California Attorney General Kamala Harris. She was joined in her letter by attorneys general in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington and Vermont.

States historically have been at the forefront of protecting against the harms from toxic chemicals and driving innovation in the development of safer products, the attorneys general wrote, often acting before the federal government.

They’re concerned the proposed law would pre-empt states from enforcing existing laws or from adopting new laws regulating chemicals that the EPA designates as “high priority” months or even years before any federal regulations become effective.

They may have good reason for concern. A federal Government Accountability Office report in March found that the EPA has been timid in using even its limited authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Of the 83 chemicals the EPA has prioritized for risk assessment, the agency initiated seven assessments in 2012 and plans to start 18 additional assessments this year and next, the GAO report found.

Wednesday’s hearing will feature 19 industry, regulatory and consumer and environmental witnesses. The hearing won’t focus directly on the legislation, originally sponsored by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. He was a liberal Democrat who championed consumer causes. The chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, hasn’t signed on to the bill, and instead will use the hearing to look at overall updates to chemical exposure threats.

The bill’s lead sponsor is Sen. David Vitter, R-La. He introduced the legislation saying it would ensure that all chemicals are screened for safety to protect public health “while also creating an environment where manufacturers can continue to innovate, grow and create jobs.”

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, which represents makers of many raw materials used in manufacturing, supports the legislation. It helps the industry avoid a patchwork approach to regulation, said Jim Cooper, the association’s vice president of petrochemicals.

“It’s not an industry bill,” Cooper said. “If you read it closely, it does place a whole lot more burden on the industry.”

Consumer groups want tougher federal review of chemicals. Breast cancer is perhaps the best example of why such protections are needed, said Nancy Buermeyer, a senior policy strategist with the California-based Breast Cancer Fund. The organization examines links between breast cancer and exposures to chemicals and radiation.

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the course of their lives, Buermeyer said. That number has risen in the past 40 years as more people are exposed to more potential toxins, she said.

“For us, reform of the toxic management system in this country is a priority and absolutely a public health issue,” Buermeyer said. “There’s strong and growing science . . . documenting the links between a number of these industrial chemicals and the risk for breast cancer.”

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