News & Press: Regulatory News

States target toxic chemicals as Washington fails to act

Tuesday, May 27, 2014  
Share |

In Vermont, the Senate has just passed a bill potentially empowering the Green Mountain State to ban chemicals it deems harmful to consumers. Some 3,000 miles away, in Washington State, environmental reformers weren’t as successful: A bill to ban six toxic flame retardants died in the Senate, beaten back by industry opposition and politicians’ cries of state overreaching.

In state capitols from Maine to Oregon, environmental advocates are filing bills to identify and ban noxious chemicals and industry groups are fighting back with pointed rebukes and high-pitched lobbying. Toxic reform legislation is either breathing with new life or being extinguished altogether.

The toxics tug-of-war in state houses is direct fallout from the muddled environmental politicking of Washington, D.C.

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal framework intended to safeguard the public from dangerous chemicals. Yet in the nearly four decades since, TSCA, as it is known, has done little more than gather dust. Among tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency has “only been able to require testing on a little more than 200 existing chemicals,” and banned five, the EPA told The Center for Public Integrity.

Everyone wants to revamp TSCA — from the industry’s $100 million lobbying arm, the American Chemistry Council, to the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, to the EPA itself.

Yet three years to the month since the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg proposed sweeping change through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, the TSCA overhaul remains in the works, with proposals, counter-proposals and criticisms about the working draft’s fine print.

Fed up with logjams in D.C., state legislators are filing hundreds of measures in their own states to do what the federal government hasn’t — take action against destructive chemicals, by singling out the most dangerous toxins and seeking to remove them from shelves.

While the political smoke continues in Washington, the chemical reform fire is playing out in statehouses from Montpelier to Olympia.

At least 442 bills involving toxics and chemicals have been filed in 2014, or refiled from previous sessions, covering 39 states, according to an environmental health legislation database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A year earlier, 399 such bills were filed and the year before that, the database shows, more than 500.

“There’s only so much you will say, ‘We can wait and see. It will be great if the feds do something.’ I think people are losing patience,” said Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency for Natural Resources.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported last year, the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups fight nearly every state measure, contending that a patchwork of state laws would do more harm than good, and that true change should come through TSCA. The industry’s statehouse pushback, fueled by a chemical advocacy group that spends tens of millions of lobbying dollars along with making political campaign donations, has helped beat back hundreds of state bills in recent years.

Vermont’s Johnson is among the state officials who understand the argument that having multitudes of differing state laws “is not the way to go.” Yet in his state, as in others, the argument of waiting for Congress to act has grown stale.

“I’ve been personally to the statehouse here in Vermont for five years in a row. ‘Let’s wait and see what the feds do,’” said Johnson, who serves on the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state leaders. “It’s getting pretty old.”

Source:  The Center for Public Integrity

By  Updated: