When we elect officials we can count on the industries that back them to write our laws. Wait a minute—that’s not the way a democratic system is supposed to work.
And yet a few weeks ago the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act was introduced by David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). While we are in full support of updating the Toxic Substance Control Act, the Udall-Vitter bill has been pilloried by many environmental- and health-watchdog organizations as simply the wrong way to go about it.
A main concern, quite simply, is that it is very friendly to the chemical industry. In Zoë Carpenter’s recent article in The Nation she uncovers ways in which the bill was, in large part, written by the chemical industry:
Early in the week Hearst Newspapers got its hands on a draft version that was circulated by Udall’s office in anticipation of a committee hearing on Wednesday. Someone at Hearst checked the authoring information contained in the Word document—and found that it originated with the American Chemistry Council, the ‘leading trade organization and lobbyist for the chemical industry.’”
Obviously when trade groups write legislation the conflict of interest is too blatant for proposed regulations to have any real merit. Carpenter sums it up:
It may be true that a bill that truly protects consumers from harmful chemicals can’t pass Congress in its current form. But that’s a stone that shouldn’t be cast against advocates for something better than the Udall-Vitter compromise. It’s an indictment of the pay-to-play political system and the legislators who gamely reward their corporate sponsors.”
Even more alarming, Udall-Vitter supersedes some pretty-effective state regulations already in place. Andy Igrejas of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families gives a cogent summary: he makes the case that state-led initiatives that regulate toxics already reverberate nationwide:
Most of the progress that has occurred at the state level over the last ten years has had to do with disclosing or restricting the use of a toxic chemical in a consumer product. That has often led the companies that make the product to remove or restrict the chemical nationwide. It’s simpler than trying to make a safer product for Minnesota and a dirtier one for Wisconsin, and also a lot more defensible. Consumers across the country – including in New Mexico – have benefited from the reductions in their exposure to toxic chemicals prompted by a handful of states.”
Igrejas also explains that under the Udall-Vitter bill, when and if EPA decides to do a risk analysis on a certain chemical, there will be a 5-7 year period in which states would be unable to regulate that chemical, leaving us in what some call a “death zone” during which chemicals with suspected human health dangers would roam free on the market. He offers a solution to this problem:
The solution to the problem is fairly simple: amend the bill so that no state is blocked from acting until and unless EPA has taken its own action to restrict a toxic chemical.”
We side with many environmental organizations that want an even simpler solution: don’t pass this bill. Senators Barbara Boxer and Edward Markey have introduced a much more comprehensive Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act which holds the EPA more accountable for assessing chemical safety, gives the public a bigger voice in toxics regulation, and still allows states to regulate chemicals as they see fit.
As a stark example of the differences between these two bills, Environmental Working Group focuses on asbestos, which, though proven to be extremely dangerous, has yet to be completely banned. EWG points out that asbestos is specifically addressed in the Boxer-Markey bill and not even mentioned in the Udall-Vitter. Other differences between the bills are alarming as well:
The Boxer-Markey bill would compel the EPA to begin evaluation of 75 chemicals within the first five years of enactment and, as soon as fees were in place, would add three more chemicals to the queue every time EPA completed a chemical review. The Udall-Vitter bill set a slower pace, requiring the EPA to launch reviews of 25 chemicals in the first five years and to add one substance to the queue with every completed review. The bottom line: the Udall-Vitter bill would not guarantee a review of asbestos anytime soon.”
The fight between those that back these similar, but very different, bills has just begun. We don’t expect any knockout punches from either side, but we’re hoping for a TKO of Udall-Vitter by the Boxer-Markey side.
What Senators Aren’t Getting About State Chemical Policies via Safer Chemicals, Safer Families
Shouldn’t Chemical Safety Law Overhaul Prioritize An Asbestos Ban? via Environmental Working Group