A key Senate Republican on plastics issues is questioning the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to put vinyl chloride monomer through a high-profile health review. But Democrats at a recent hearing said it's needed, pointing to last year's freight train derailment and VCM spill in Ohio.
EPA in December 2023 put VCM on its next list of five legacy chemicals to receive a fast-track review. But at a Jan. 24 hearing to examine how EPA administers toxic chemical laws, Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., said agency actions have left companies questioning whether the review of the PVC building block will be fair. Specifically, Mullin asked EPA Assistant Administrator Michal Freedhoff about an agency news release announcing the VCM review that quoted Judith Enck, the head of Beyond Plastics, praising the decision.
"My question, ma'am, is when you go on a victory lap with activists and include their quote directly under your press release, how [can] manufacturers and contractors in industry have any confidence that this is not just an activist move driven by and prejudged before it even comes out?" said Mullin, speaking at a U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing.
"When you quote someone like that, it would obviously send shock waves to the industry saying that your mind is already made up," said Mullin, who is also the top Republican on the EPW subcommittee on waste management. That subcommittee has been holding hearings over the last year on plastics pollution issues.
"This committee has been working on plastics for quite some time and, as I like to say, almost a war on plastic," Mullin said. "I want to be very careful as we're moving forward that the agency is actually working with industry, not just working with activists."
But Freedhoff told senators that EPA is working with all stakeholders on the VCM review, noting that it told industry representatives that VCM would be short-listed before it told Beyond Plastics.
She said the VCM review under the Toxic Substances Control Act will have multiple rounds of public comments and will take more than four years.
"There is an undeniable interest in a large part of the community in taking a look at the chemicals that are used to make plastic," Freedhoff said, adding that President Richard Nixon's administration noted concerns over VCM when it proposed the nation's first toxic chemical safety law in the 1970s.
Freedhoff said the scientific review and potential action on vinyl chloride is in its early stages.
"I can assure you with full confidence that nobody at the agency … has any idea of what that rule would look like," she said. "We've only just started."
Other senators noted the VCM review as well. Nebraska Republican Pete Ricketts pointed to the importance of PVC tubing and hosing used in agricultural equipment, but Democrats Edward Markey from Massachusetts and John Fetterman from Pennsylvania noted the train derailment and VCM spill.
In his comments, Markey noted that Mullin highlighted industry interest in the VCM rule, but Markey said he wanted to highlight community concerns and was glad EPA moved ahead on a VCM review.
Markey asked Freedhoff whether EPA action could lead to bans or use restrictions on vinyl chloride to protect communities. She replied that it could include "whether it should be manufactured and used in a way different than it currently is."