Original story by James Bruggers for courier.journal. Find the original here.
It seemed like a good idea back in 1976 - passing a Toxic Substances Control Act to safeguard Americans from chemicals that can cause cancer or other illnesses.
But it didn't work very well - in fact, it wasn't strong enough to even stand up to a ban on asbestos, a known carcinogen.
This week, there's a new chemical safety bill that President Obama is expected to sign, and believe it or not, it was a product of Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as environmental and industry groups.
Stop the presses.
My Society of Environmental Journalists' colleague Cheryl Hogue explained it this way for Scientific American, in an article originally from Chemical & Engineering News:
"In a move that will mandate required federal safety assessments of chemicals found in everyday products from laundry detergent to toys, a June 7 U.S. Senate vote sends legislation to President Barack Obama for signature. The measure...marks Congress’s first major overhaul of a federal pollution control statute in a decade.
"The legislation will fundamentally change U.S. regulation of the products of the chemical industry, from commodity substances that have been in use for decades to novel commercial compounds discovered and developed by research chemists."
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a medical doctor, was among the final holdouts,according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Paul boomed: “If California inappropriately regulates your chemicals, charge them more and by all means move! We'd love to have your business in Kentucky.”
As Hogue, who knows chemical safety as well as any journalist, wrote, EPA will need to determine the safety of chemicals in commerce. The federal agency gets some additional power to compel testing by companies. She notes that now, the agency has to document risks before demanding companies conduct safety testing.
Tens of thousands of chemicals have been brought into society without, critics have said, adequate safety checks.
When's the last time you heard a leader of an environmental group say something like this about new legislation?
"While not perfect, the Lautenberg Act fixes the biggest problems with our current law - by requiring safety reviews for chemicals in use today, mandating greater scrutiny of new chemicals before they can be sold, removing the barriers that prevented EPA from banning asbestos and other harmful chemicals, enhancing transparency, and much more," said Dr. Richard Denison, Environmental Defense Fund's lead senior scientist. "We look forward to seeing the president sign this landmark reform, so we can begin the process of restoring confidence in our chemical safety system.”
And this, from the industry's American Chemistry Council's President, Cal Dooley, who called passage of the bill "truly historic. This legislation is significant not only because it is the first major environmental law passed since 1990, but because TSCA reform will have lasting and meaningful benefits for all American manufacturers, all American families and for our nation’s standing as the world’s leading innovator."
Not everyone is happy.
"For 15 years, community-based organizations in Kentucky, including Louisville-based environmental justice groups like REACT and the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, have been promoting a chemical industry reform agenda that holds the industry accountable for the harm it has already created, and promotes safe chemical solutions that are good for our health, the environment and economies," Elizabeth Crowe told me an in email.
She used to be with KEF and how is with something called the Coming Clean collaborative, with a mission of moving the nation's "fossil fuel-based chemical and energy economy toward a new era of economic sustainability and community wellness based on innovations and new applications of green chemistry and clean energy."
There's a Louisville connection. The coalition has rallied around something called theLouisville Charter as a measuring stick for proposed policies. That charter arose out of meetings between environmental groups in Louisville more than a decade ago, surrounding western Louisville residents' struggles with Rubbertown chemical companies.
The Lautenberg bill "does offer some improvements," Crowe acknowledged, but "it doesn't measure up to the Charter when it comes to immediate action to protect people being contaminated right now, or to clean up legacy chemical contamination."
She said it also restricts the power of states and, "unfortunately, these and other disincentives and loopholes make the new law a pretty good win for the chemical industry; less so for families and communities who want to protect our health."
In the end, there was compromise, as Denison told NPR:
"I would say the thing that brought it about is first the fact that the public and consumers were demanding change, second - that the industry itself began to recognize it needed a stronger federal system to restore confidence and third - there really was a commitment to do this on a bipartisan basis in Congress."
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