House to Vote on Overhaul of Outdated Toxic Chemical Regulation Bill

West Virginia Water
Up to 300,000 people were without tap water after a chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia in January 2014 prompted Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to declare a state of emergency. Lisa Hechesky/Reuters

After an industrial chemical spill in West Virginia last year left 300,000 residents temporarily without water and health officials scrambling to understand what, if any, risks the leaked coal-processing chemical posed to the public, the federal government is inching closer to revising the nation's toxic chemical regulations for the first time in 39 years.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). The Senate is expected to vote on a similar bill next month. Both houses' versions of the bill unanimously passed their respective subcommittees, and have been heralded as examples of the efficacy of bipartisan legislative work. But critics say the bill won't do nearly enough to fill in gaps existing in the old law, and that the bill's potency may be undermines as a result of the legislatures having worked too closely with American Chemistry Council, the powerful lobbying arm of the chemical industry.

"Something is better than nothing, but this isn't much," Maya Nye, the director of the West Virginia–based group People Concerned About Chemical Safety, told The New York Times ahead of Tuesday's vote.

The Senate's version of the bill, for example, appears to have at least been touched by the American Chemistry Council. Hearst Newspapers obtained the draft in the form of a Microsoft Word Document before it went to subcommittee, according to Reuters. A quick look at "advanced properties" in Word showed the "company" of origin of the document to be the American Chemistry Council.

"Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I do not believe that a regulated industry should be so intimately involved in writing a bill that regulates them," Senator Barbara Boxer, D-California, said shortly before the bill went to the Senate subcommittee vote. She sharply criticized the bill as a disgrace compared to the regulation the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, spent years advocating for but never saw passed before his death in 2013.

"I loved Frank Lautenberg very much and it is with very deep respect and a heavy heart that I make these statements about the bill that has been named after him," Boxer said shortly after it was introduced. "But I remember when Frank said this, 'It's time to take action on TSCA reform and put an end to the chemical companies' political games.'"

Lautenberg's original bill called for the EPA to directly address asbestos, a carcinogen currently exempt from EPA regulation, and to begin reviewing the toxicity of the tens of thousands of other unregulated chemicals currently in use.

"Their bill doesn't even mention the word asbestos," Boxer said, according to the Hill.

The Senate's bill, named for Lautenberg, would require the EPA to begin reviewing unregulated chemicals at a pace of about 10 chemicals per year, rather than the hundreds per year intended by Lautenberg's original version.

"Today there's no requirement. So the number of chemicals ultimately reviewed by EPA will be increased," said Michael Walls, a vice president at the American Chemistry Council, in response to criticism about the review rate in the new bill, The New York Times reports.

According to a California Senate review from 2010, the EPA has only tested and published data on approximately 200 of the 83,000 chemicals in its inventory. Crude-MCHM, the coal processing chemical that spilled in West Virginia, for example, was not one of the few that have been tested.

The 1976 TSCA currently in use stipulates that when a company creates a new chemical, the EPA has 90 days to review it and decide how to regulate it. If the EPA does not set regulations within that time—as often is the case—companies are free to use and distribute that chemical as they see fit. That rule did not apply to the approximately 64,000 chemicals already in use in the U.S. when the TSCA came into effect.

"American families should not have to wait more decades for a regulatory system that aggressively protects their health from toxic chemicals. We need expeditious, rigorous safety evaluations of at least 1,000 toxic chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency says deserve priority attention. And we need assurance that the most dangerous chemicals will be regulated or banned," Ken Cook, the president of the national group Environmental Working Group said in a statement after the House's version of the bill, H.R. 2576, passed its subcommittee. "While we commend the committee for its focus on the need to overhaul chemical policy, the legislation it is sending to the House floor will not do the job. It still tips much too far in favor of an industry in serious need of regulation."

The American Chemistry Council, however, contends that the bill strikes a fair balance of addressing health concerns and protecting business interests.

"The inclusive, bipartisan process…has resulted in an approach to TSCA reform that will build confidence in the U.S. chemical regulatory system, protect human health and the environment from significant risks, and meet the commercial and competitive interests of the U.S. chemical industry and the national economy," ACC president Cal Dooley said in a statement last month.