Washington — U.S. lawmakers have reached a bipartisan agreement to reconcile the bills passed last year in the House and Senate that would overhaul chemical safety regulations for the first time in 40 years.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates the manufacture, transportation and use of thousands of chemicals, from resins to flame retardants, but has not been successfully reauthorized or reexamined since it was signed into law in 1976.
Lawmakers plan to have the compromise measure “passed, signed and on the president's desk” by the end of the month, said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and one of the leaders of negotiations in ironing out the differences between the more than 200 page bill passed by the Senate in December (S 697) and the more targeted, less sweeping House version passed last June (HR 2576).
Votes by the full chambers could come as early as May 24, Inhofe said. President Barack Obama is expected to have the bill on his desk before the Memorial Day break.
The compromise legislation will provide the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with more power to obtain information about a chemical before passing judgment on its use or risks, while providing industry with a single regulatory process, protection for proprietary information and a pathway to prioritize approval of new chemicals before they hit the market.
States will still have the right to seek a federal waiver to impose their own rules on any given chemical.
The full text of the finalized legislation was not available, but the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee issued a summary of the details of the agreement, including:
• A risk-based safety standard for all new and existing chemicals, with a “worst-first” approach to prioritization.
• Expanded EPA authority to require the submission of health and safety data for untested chemicals, while reducing animal testing.
• “Aggressive and attainable deadlines” for chemical approval by EPA.
• Requirements for EPA to make a finding on a new chemical's safety before it enters the market.
• Requirements for EPA to consider the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children, when assessing chemical safety.
• Funding for EPA to implement the new law.
• Deadlines for companies to comply with new EPA rules.
• Creation of “a more uniform regulatory system to ensure interstate commerce is not unduly burdened, while retaining a significant role for states in ensuring chemical safety.”
Preemption of existing state laws was a significant difference between the House and Senate bills, as well as a major sticking point for Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the top Democrat on the Senate committee.
California's chemical regulation laws, from Proposition 65 to its Green Chemistry Initiative, are particularly well-known but Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and Washington also have their own restrictions on some chemicals born out of the vacuum of decades of federal inaction.
According to a statement from Boxer, the new agreement would leave states free to act on any chemical on their own until EPA takes steps to regulate a specific chemical and that the agency has three and a half years to do so.
“I believe our agreement is respectful of the federal government's role and the state government's role,” she said.
While environmental and consumer advocacy groups remain split on the bill's rewrite, the EPA has been supportive of the most recent drafts of the TSCA overhaul, as has industry.
“As with any compromise, this legislation balances the priorities and interests of multiple stakeholders while producing an agreement that pragmatic industry, environmental, public health and labor groups can ultimately support,” said American Chemistry Council President and CEO Cal Dooley in a statement, calling the final version of the bipartisan legislation “the product of tireless negotiation” and “strong Congressional leadership.”