Asbestos, other toxic chemicals finally set to be regulated by EPA

© Rebecca Cook
The Environmental Protection Agency will finally be able to regulate asbestos and other known toxic substances for the first time in decades. But environmentalists say the compromise bill doesn’t do enough and limits state regulators.

With bipartisan support, the House of Representatives voted 403-12 to pass a bill to update the  Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 for the first time since it was enacted. The Senate is also expected to pass the legislation, Reuters reported, citing leadership aides.

The measure, called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, revises the scope of the EPA’s ability to regulate chemicals “so that they no longer present unreasonable risks of injury to health or environment,” rather than requiring “the EPA to provide adequate protection against those risks using the least burdensome requirements.”

The bill tasks the government with testing chemicals using "sound and credible science," and without evaluating the cost of taking action. If a chemical presents an unreasonable impact on health and the environment, the EPA would then try to manage that risk, while also considering the chemical's benefits and the economic impact of regulation. The agency would then be able to take steps against the substance that range from labeling the product to outright banning it.

"By removing 40-year-old barriers and modernizing procedures, we reduce the risk to consumers. This means the chemicals and products we use every day will be safer for Americans," Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) said.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) noted that the current law has made it difficult for the EPA to regulate “even substances that are known to cause cancer, such as asbestos.”

The 1976 law makes it “almost impossible” for the EPA to function, “in part because it does not require manufacturers to provide safety data before a product hits the market,” the New York Times noted in an Op-Ed urging the bill’s passage.

The Environmental Defense Fund lauded the compromise bill in a statement, calling it a “substantial improvement over current law.” It did note that there are aspects of the legislation it didn’t support that were included to secure its passage, but added: “We are very pleased that we can say that each major section of the final bill offers real improvements.”

“At long last, EPA will have stronger tools to protect Americans from toxic chemicals that impact the health of millions of Americans.”

Some consumer rights advocates and environmentalists say the bill will do more harm than good, though. The biggest sticking point seems to be that the new bill would preempt states from imposing restrictions on chemicals ‒ a concession pushed for by industry.

“When it comes to public health protections, the federal government should set a floor, not a ceiling,” US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) said in a statement when the bill’s language was released. “By unnecessarily preempting states’ efforts to regulate toxic chemicals, this bill does more harm than good.”

“But there is a reason why the chemical industry supports this bill. It handcuffs state regulators and takes 50 chemical cops off the beat,” US PIRG added. “This proposal could best be characterized as one step forward and two steps back. We can do better, and we urge lawmakers to vote no.”

Professor Rena Steinzor, University of Maryland School of Law, also opposes the legislation, which she says was “made possible by the steely and relentless determination of the US chemical industry.”

“A well-funded, politically empowered EPA that employed the best and the brightest of American scientists might be able to make lemonade out of the lemons scattered throughout this unfortunate legislation,” she wrote in a Huffington Post Op-Ed. “But it’s far more likely that the agency we have today will soon become mired in ‘paralysis-by-analysis’ before it takes action and a flood of litigation after it ‒ only occasionally ‒ acts.”

The bill, which is a compromise of legislation that each chamber of Congress had previously passed, is named after former Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), who died in 2013 at the age of 89. The five-term senator pushed to update the 1976 law because it prevented the US government from regulating asbestos even after it was declared a carcinogen, according to NJ Advance Media.

The Obama administration “strongly supports” the compromise bill, the White House said Monday.