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
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
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
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
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.”
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