WASHINGTON—A bipartisan bill that would update regulation of harmful chemicals for the first time in nearly 40 years is drawing opposition from some Democrats and environmental groups, who say the measure is a step backward in protecting health and the environment.
The “Udall-Vitter” bill is proposed by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., who call it a commonsense update to a 1976 law widely seen as ineffective.
The bill would set safety standards for tens of thousands of chemicals that are now unregulated and offer protections for those vulnerable to their effects such as pregnant women, children and workers. It also would set deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to act, while blocking states’ action in cases where EPA is addressing the same issues.
Regulation of chemicals took on new urgency after a crippling spill in West Virginia last year contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people. The chemical, crude MCHM, is one of thousands that are unregulated under current law.
The hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee featured a role reversal from usual positions taken by the two parties. Republicans, who often push for the rights of states to set their own guidelines, backed a bill that would create a national standard for chemicals while granting enforcement power to an agency Republicans often criticize—the EPA.
Democrats turned that argument against the bill’s supporters, claiming the measure would pre-empt aggressive regulation by states such as California, Vermont and Massachusetts. Industry groups have said they welcome regulation of chemicals but said they should not have to contend with a potential for 50 different standards across the country.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., charged that the bill was generated by the chemical industry itself, noting that computer coding on a draft bill identified the American Chemistry Council, the chief lobbying group for the chemical industry.
“Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I do not believe that a regulated industry should be so intimately involved in writing a bill that regulates them,” Boxer said. “The voices of public health and safety organizations that speak for our citizens must be heard.”
Despite the bickering, there’s widespread agreement on Capitol Hill that the current law needs an overhaul. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, known as TSCA, is widely seen as ineffective in protecting Americans from harmful chemicals.
The Udall-Vitter bill mandates safety reviews for all chemicals in use and for new chemicals before they can enter the market. It also replaces EPA’s cost-benefit safety standard with a health-based safety standard.