Senator Formaldehyde’s ‘Chemical Safety’ Bill

These days, legislation rarely makes it through Congress without support from interest groups on both sides of the issue, forcing lawmakers to draft bills that are largely balanced. Now, however, the American people are being pushed by big polluters to accept “chemical safety” legislation advanced by one of Washington’s most ardent anti-environmental advocates, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), that has virtually zero support in the environmental and public health communities.

The bill is the industry-backed Chemical Safety Improvement Act, or CSIA, which would take the worst of all major federal environmental laws, the Toxic Substances Control Act and make it even worse, according to months of meticulous analysis by dozens of public interest groups, legal scholars and state environment and law enforcement officials.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sen. Vitter’s environmental voting record in Congress has a lifetime score of only 4 percent from the League of Conservation Voters.

At virtually every opportunity to consider legislation to protect the quality of our air, water and land or mitigate the ravages of climate change, Vitter has said or voted “No.” The only issues where he comes down on the side of the environment is his support for ending wasteful federal subsidies for ethanol, and for the RESTORE Act that steered fines collected from the BP oil spill to Gulf restoration projects in his home state.

Vitter’s voting record on environmental issues squares well with the wishes of the companies and industries that have largely bankrolled his campaigns. Since 2009, the petrochemical industry has been his largest benefactor, delivering nearly $600,000 to his campaign coffers, while the chemical industry and its downstream users have contributed roughly $340,000 over the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Sen. Vitter has a unique history when it comes to protecting toxic chemicals over public health, having almost single-handedly blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s more than two-decade effort to regulate the use formaldehyde, one of the most studied and highly carcinogenic chemicals in commerce today, in the production of construction materials.

The National Toxicology Program classifies formaldehyde as a “known human carcinogen.” And a 30-year investigation by the National Cancer Institute that tracked the cancer deaths among a group of nearly 26,000 people who were exposed to formaldehyde in the workplace found that those exposed to elevated levels of the chemical had a 78 percent greater chance of being diagnosed with leukemia and a 37 percent increased risk of dying from lymphatic and blood cancers, compared with workers who had not been exposed.  

Other victims of formaldehyde exposure include many of Vitter’s own constituents who were housed in government-supplied trailers contaminated with the carcinogen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.

Despite this evidence and much more documenting the real dangers of exposure, Sen. Vitter pushed for further study in an effort to delay EPA’s attempt to regulate formaldehyde, going so far as to hold up an Obama administration appointment to a top job at EPA unless then-Administrator Lisa P. Jackson agreed to have the National Academy of Sciences review EPA’s formaldehyde assessment. That has likely pushed off the agency’s final decision for several years.

Joaquin Sapien of the independent investigative journalism center ProPublica wrote a detailed and wide-ranging piece on Vitter’s efforts on behalf of the formaldehyde industry and the financial support he received from its key players. The senator is now the ranking Republican on  the Environment and Public Works Committee that oversees the EPA and its efforts to improve the quality of our air, water and land. The committee also has jurisdiction over legislation controlling the use of toxic chemicals in consumer and commercial goods, including Vitter’s proposed Chemical Safety Improvement Act.

I’m sure that Vitter’s patrons in the petroleum and chemical sectors, for whom EPA is a persistent thorn in the side, could hardly be more thrilled with his ascension. And to have the man who delivered for them on formaldehyde leading the charge to water down efforts to reform and strengthen the broken chemical regulation law (often known just as TSCA and pronounced tosca) must be a nice bonus.

Most recently, Vitter held up for weeks the nomination of Gina McCarthy to be the head of EPA, calling further into question his commitment to an EPA that has the resources and Congressional support to do its job.

Given that history, it’s not surprising that red flags went up at EWG and many other organizations when Vitter unveiled a chemical policy reform “compromise” bill co-sponsored with the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who for nearly a decade had championed efforts to reform TSCA that the environmental and public health communities strongly supported.

Those initial concerns over the proposal rolled out by Senator Formaldehyde turned out to be right on the mark. Earlier this summer, my colleague David Andrews, Ph.D., delivered a thorough critique of how Vitter’s bill would benefit the chemical industry – and fail the public.

Earlier in my career, when I worked for several members of the Senate including Sen. Lautenberg, a former boss passed along one particularly valuable piece of advice on the art of negotiation in Congress: “Always start from your strongest possible position and work down until both sides can agree.”

But what Sen. Vitter and his allies want is for the American people to swallow the weakest possible position in terms of public health and environmental protection before the negotiations on TSCA reform have even begun.

The fact is, legislation seldom improves significantly – at least in terms of the public interest –when it’s debated in committee, a process formally known as the “mark-up.” This is when legislators offer their amendments. Some propose changes that would benefit all of us, while others offer up changes designed to help out special interests, such as the chemical companies.

That’s why it’s essential that any bill that is brought before the full Environment and Public Works Committee start out with broad support from the public interest community, which will require a dramatic rewrite of Vitter’s bill to address the problems David Andrews and other experts have identified.

Happily, there is good news for those of us concerned about exposures to toxic chemicals. The chairman of the committee is Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California who is arguably the strongest defender of environmental protection and human health to wield that gavel in a generation.

Sen. Boxer notified Vitter and other members during a hearing late last month that she would take charge of moving any TSCA reform legislation through the committee, which as chairman is her right and responsibility.

It’s imperative to maintain a focus on not only the failings of the existing federal law but also the pitfalls of adopting Vitter’s bill in its place. It’s also important that the public interest community vociferously support Sen. Boxer as she works with other leaders to bring strong chemical safety legislation to the floor of the Senate. It must be legislation that reflects the desires of the American people and of Frank Lautenberg, her longtime friend and ally whose entire career was spent protecting people – not the clients of the formaldehyde and petrochemical lobby. 

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