Chemical Safety Reform: Will the Center Hold?

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Lead Senior Scientist.

Copyright © 2014, Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, D.C. www.eli.org
Reprinted by permission from The Environmental Forum®, May/June 2014

Compromise is tough. It can be thankless and unsatisfying, and, by definition, you don’t get everything you want. But it’s the only way reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act will happen. Nearly everyone, from environmentalists to industry honchos, agrees TSCA is badly broken. But start talking about how to fix the problems and you’ll find there are legitimate core principles held by different stakeholders that are difficult to reconcile. Here are just three examples:

New chemicals. The common-sense notion that new chemicals should be shown safe before entering the market, versus the desire not to hinder innovation or U.S. companies’ ability to compete globally by getting chemicals to market quickly;

Preemption. The appeal of a single federal oversight system that does not impede interstate commerce, versus the view that states have the right to act to protect their residents; and

Confidential business information. The right of citizens, consumers, and the market to information on potential risks of chemicals they may use or be exposed to, versus assurance that legitimate trade secrets submitted to regulators will not generally be disclosed.

As an active participant in the past decade’s debate, I’ve seen firsthand how such conflicting principles complicate — politically and substantively — prospects for achieving reform. I’ve also learned that progress comes only when both sides accept they have to give something to get something. Conversely, progress stalls when stakeholders get greedy. The past year has seen both tendencies.

The late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) assessed the landscape last year and saw the need for compromise. He took the political risk of working on legislation with Senator David Vitter (R-LA), who had been about to introduce his own legislation. The result was the first-ever bipartisan legislation to reform TSCA, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act.

Sadly, Senator Lautenberg died shortly after CSIA was introduced. But the legislation remains very much alive, and although it was (and is) far from perfect, there has been major progress thanks to the continuing work of Senator Vitter and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) to address major concerns raised about the bill and strengthen its health protections.

Additional progress is endangered, however, as some players have fallen back to their core principles and hardened their positions. And after holding a promising series of constructive, balanced hearings on TSCA, the House majority floated reform legislation — albeit a discussion draft rather than a bill — that tilts heavily in industry’s favor.

These challenges have led some stakeholders to consider forgoing the present opportunity and either opt to retreat to the status quo or try to forestall action and wait for more political advantage in the future. In my view, this notion of an easier path any time in the foreseeable future is illusory. The conflicting needs of stakeholders are so fundamental, and the political climate so polarized, that counting on them to change appreciably is wishful at best.

The only recourse is to do the hard work of negotiating to forge a legitimate and fair compromise that delivers an efficient and effective chemicals management system. Let me use my earlier three examples to illustrate what common ground looks like:

New chemicals. EPA should make an affirmative determination of safety before market entry, but using a standard that allows prompt review based on the limited information available for a new chemical. Where that information is insufficient, EPA should be able to require more — or impose conditions sufficient to address potential risks even in its absence;

Preemption. States should be able to act to address a chemical’s risks wherever EPA has not, or when they can make the case for going further. Preemption should apply prospectively, and when, but only when, the agency has all the information it needs to make a definitive safety decision and takes final action on a chemical. Requirements that do not directly restrict a chemical’s manufacture or use — such as for reporting, warnings, monitoring or assessment, which do not unduly impede interstate commerce — should remain available to states; and

Confidential business information. Legitimate trade secrets should be protected, but not information on health and environmental effects or general information on a chemical’s use. Identities of chemicals should generally be available once they enter commerce. Up-front substantiation and EPA approval of claims should be required. Claims should generally be time-limited but renewable upon resubstantiation. State and local governments, medical personnel, first responders, and health and environmental officials should have access to confidential business information.

The opportunity before us is apparent: Our best chance to fix an outdated law that serves nobody’s interests. The alternative — sticking with a piecemeal system that undermines consumer confidence and puts our health at risk — is no alternative at all. All it takes to seize this opportunity is to agree that compromise doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

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2 Comments

  1. Mike Belliveau
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Richard,

    I'm surprised by your generic plea to unnamed stakeholders for compromise on TSCA reform, and your positing of a mythical center that might or might not hold. Compromise isn't so tough, thankless or unsatisfying. It's how things get done normally and all the time.

    Your hands-off critique of the current situation may be carefully calibrated, but it sure is ironic. It was your premature actions that helped embolden the chemical industry to push a hard-right version of TSCA reform. You endorsed the Senate TSCA reform bill, which was substantially drafted by the chemical industry, after secret and apparently minor concessions were made, and before most of us had even seen it.

    Is it no wonder that the industry has been unwilling to support reasonable compromise fixes to their extreme overreach in both the Senate and the House? They have your support already, so there's no need to further compromise with EDF. Other health and environmental advocates have proposed constructive, compromise solutions to the problems in the bills, rather than falling back on older tougher positions, yet they have been rejected by the bills' backers.

    Unless these right wing bills are shut down, there will be no center on TSCA reform. Fortunately, we can count on steady progress toward safer chemicals by marketplace leaders, the states, and our trading partners. The chemical industry can say its political prayers, continue to fight rearguard actions, and throw consumer product companies under the bus. But until they return to the table and negotiate in good faith, no TSCA reform is better than phony reform.

    Mike Belliveau
    Environmental Health Strategy Center

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