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Strong Message to Lawmakers on Chemical Policy Reform

Monday, June 17, 2013

Why would 34 lawyers and law professors, 24 national non-profit organizations and 13 California-based groups all write Congress to oppose something called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act?

“Chemical safety improvement” sounds like a good thing, right? But when you look under the hood, it turns out to be a clunker.

Although the bill’s sponsors are touting it as a long-awaited, bipartisan measure to reform the nation’s major chemicals policy and safety law, the only major environmental statute that has not been updated since its creation back in 1976, the letters sent last week (June 12) point out that this so-called “reform” was written to suit the chemical industry and would mark a major retreat in terms of public health and safety. It fails to address most of the shortcomings of the current law, titled the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has long been criticized as toothless and ineffective.

In one of the letters, 24 environmental and public health organizations from across the country – including the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, Greenpeace, Environmental Working Group and the Breast Cancer Fund – conveyed their concerns to the chairman and ranking members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Economy. The organizations pointed out a host of major defects in the proposal, including these: It would invalidate stronger state chemical safety and health laws; it lacks provisions to protect “vulnerable populations;” and it sets out a weak safety standard that would greatly hamper the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to protect against hazardous substances.

Bottom line? The 24  organizations wrote, “…the Chemical Safety Improvement Act is not acceptable in its current form.”

Californians have a particularly strong reason to reject the proposal. In 1986, California voters adopted a state law known as Proposition 65, which requires the state to create a list of chemicals that its scientists have found to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. Products that contain a chemical that’s on the list must carry a warning label for consumers. That state law and others like it would be undermined and probably nullified by provisions of the new Senate bill that would preempt state laws on chemicals in commercial use.

Californians consider their chemical safety law a success, so it’s no wonder that they wrote to their congressmen. The California-based organizations that signed the letter to their home-state Senator Barbara Boxer – including California Communities Against Toxics, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Black Women for Wellness and the Coalition for Clean Air – wrote that the bill “could tie California’s hand and prevent the state from continuing to be a leader on toxic chemical issues.”

The 34 lawyers and law professors who signed a similar letter come from some of the nation’s top law schools. They emphasized that the proposed legislation has major flaws in addressing the issues of a safety standard, judicial review, preemption and private remedies. They wrote:

… the Chemical Safety Improvement Act preserves some of the most problematic features of the Toxic Substances Control Act, while making it harder for state and private actors to ensure the safety  of chemicals in the absence of a strong federal backstop for regulating these substances. As a result, the bill, as currently drafted, takes a step backwards in terms of public health.

The three letters from such a broad assortment of organizations and professionals reflect a growing chorus of  opposition to the proposed Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which falls far short of living up to its title and is hardly the “reform” that its backers have claimed. Hopefully lawmakers will recognize its serious flaws and come up with a bill that actually protects people from the hazards of toxic chemicals.

EWG’s press release on the letters can be read here.