Let’s savor this moment: Senate passes legislation representing real chemical safety reform

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

[Links to: the Senate-passed bill and a staff-prepared summary and list of changes made since committee markup.]

A huge step was taken tonight toward bringing this country’s chemical safety law into the 21st century:  The Senate (at last!) brought the Lautenberg Act to the floor by unanimous consent and passed it without objection by a voice vote.  While this outcome was not surprising, given that 60 Senators had already co-sponsored the legislation, it took a long time to get here and tonight’s vote is an historic moment that merits reflection.

I’ve been working for better chemical safety policies, including meaningful and comprehensive reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), for most of my career at EDF.  And for much of that time I found myself and my organization virtually always at odds with the chemical industry and often with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  When I started, I’m not sure I could ever have predicted either how long it would take – or how strongly bipartisan the support for TSCA reform would become.

The twists and turns along the way toward today’s Senate vote are too many to recount.  Suffice it to say we wouldn’t be here without the tremendous, sustained work of a group of Senators and their staff on both sides of the aisle who dedicated themselves to steadily moving this legislation forward while improving it in response to the concerns of literally hundreds of stakeholders.  The key has been the active engagement of and by an ever-enlarging circle of Senators and stakeholders, who saw the potential for a public health and environmental breakthrough and had the courage to work toward a compromise bill even in the most partisan of climates.

EDF’s benchmark for judging the strength of any legislative proposal has been the extent to which it addresses the many flaws in current law.  The Lautenberg Act, while clearly a compromise, still unequivocally meets that test – and has the level and diversity of support needed for the bill to actually become law.

Our press release, factsheets and side-by-side comparison of the Lautenberg Act to current TSCA summarize why we believe it represents the meaningful, comprehensive reform for which we’ve been working for so long and that American families deserve.

Of course, the work to get TSCA reform is not done.  The task of reconciling the comprehensive Senate bill with the more skeletal TSCA Modernization Act that breezed through the House in the summer now begins.  EDF strongly believes this should not be an exercise in merely splitting the differences.  Rather, we will be relentless in working to ensure that any bill signed into law meets key health protection objectives and delivers real reform.

Our top-ten list of objectives is as follows:

  1. Primary focus on chemicals that EPA, not industry, deems to be of highest priority
  2. Affirmative safety finding before a new chemical can enter the market
  3. No preemption of state authority triggered by EPA actions on new chemicals
  4. Dedicated user fees to defray costs of all EPA chemical reviews, not just those industry selects
  5. Full exclusion of cost considerations from all EPA determinations relating to unreasonable risk
  6. Elimination of TSCA’s Catch-22 requiring EPA to first show evidence of risk to require testing
  7. Deadlines for compliance with, and elimination of a cost-benefit balancing requirement from, EPA chemical regulations
  8. Authority for EPA to act if another agency to which a risk is referred fails to take timely action
  9. EPA review of confidential business information (CBI) claims, both past and future, and mandatory access to CBI by states
  10. No allowance for chemical identity in health and safety information to be claimed CBI

But it’s worth savoring the present moment, brought to all of us by a rare amalgam of political risk-taking and courage, willingness to seek common ground and compromise, dedication to one’s key principles while acknowledging the legitimacy of others’, and countless days, weeks and months of plain old hard work.


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  1. Posted December 17, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    This bill guarantees that real progress on endocrine disruption will be delayed for at least another generation of babies. Were it real progress, how many lives would have been improved? IQ points protected? Cancer cases avoided? Obesity reduced? Diabetes averted? Infertility avoided? ADHD escaped? Were I a Shakesperean expert, I’m sure I would have the precise quote for how the attraction of short term political victories torpedoes real progress. This is a story that has been told many times. Sad to see EDF succumbing.

    • Jeanne Rizzo
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      Could it be “Policy sits above conscience” ? In any case, the promise of real chemicals policy reform has been broken.

    • Ansje Miller
      Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      It is heartbreaking that the promise of real chemicals policy reform has been broken. The final package coming of the conference and going to the POTUS must at least protect the states abilities to keep acting on dangerous chemicals.

  2. Posted December 18, 2015 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Pathetic to see public health, consumer safety, and environmental protection up for sale. As written, S. 697 doesn’t even ensure the EPA can ban asbestos. Asbestos victims are …dying to be heard. President Obama, can you hear us.

  3. Debbie
    Posted December 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Hope this will include laundry chemicals they are putrid