You might say Sen. Frank Lautenberg wants to be the grandfather of chemical regulation.
The New Jersey Democrat emotes the aura of a grandfather -- so much so that even his staff pays him a reverence that goes beyond what senators typically receive from their aides.
And, like most grandfathers, Lautenberg is particularly concerned with children's health. His eyes light up when asked about how chemicals in the environment or in day-to-day products may pose risks to children.
The 87-year-old lawmaker quickly rattles off statistics such as 5 percent of pediatric cancers, 10 percent of cognition problems in newborns and 30 percent of asthmatics are likely caused by chemical exposures. Not to mention possible links to rising autism rates.
Those statistics, Lautenberg said during a recent interview with E&E Daily in his Senate office, led him to become the chief advocate for reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) -- the nation's only law for regulating chemicals.
"When you looked at TSCA and saw a piece of legislation that had almost no interest or no attention, I thought that was outrageous," Lautenberg said. "I see families come to the Capitol. This week it was a group with diabetes. You see hundreds of kids sitting out there -- not that their condition is necessarily tied to chemical presences -- but when you see these children and you see the affliction that is put on them by something. That's what gets us going."
There is only one problem: Lautenberg's numerous efforts at reforming TSCA so far have all failed.
But that is not stopping Lautenberg from trying again this year. The Democrat has introduced the "Safe Chemicals Act of 2011," (S. 847) which calls for a seismic shift in the way chemicals are regulated by placing the burden on manufacturers to prove a chemical is safe before it goes on the market.
Talking to Lautenberg, who has served in the Senate twice -- dating back to 1983 -- you cannot help but get the distinct impression that the Democrat only has a few more fights left in him. After all, his term ends in 2014, when he will be 90.
But this year Lautenberg appears more likely to get something done from his perch as chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health Subcommittee. He notably began holding stakeholder meetings on the issue with Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) recently -- signaling the possibility of Republican support that has never existed before -- and says this year may be different (E&E Daily, June 15).
"We've got ourselves in position," he said. "Persistence is our mantra. We keep chipping away at it."
Lautenberg's resilience on the issue has made him a hero to environmental groups who say that the 1976 law, the country's only major environmental statute to never receive a congressional update, is woefully inadequate. Such groups say that for Lautenberg -- who has had such accomplishments as banning smoking from airplanes -- TSCA reform has become his holy grail, his legacy.
"He's really been dogged," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "This is a guy who has really been a courageous public health champion and this would be the environmental crown on his career."
Lautenberg's dedication to TSCA reform is deeply rooted in personal terms.
Many years ago, Lautenberg's sister Marian Rosenstadt was diagnosed with asthma. She had a machine in her car, he said, that helped her during attacks.
At a school board meeting in Rye, N.Y., she felt such an attack coming on. She rushed out to her car but did not make it in time, passing out near the parking lot.
Three days later, she died at the hospital. She was 53 years old.
Lautenberg also has 13 grandchildren, some of whom have similar afflictions. One has severe asthma, another has diabetes.
"When you know how devastating some of these conditions can be, and you can prevent it ..." he said, before his voice broke up slightly.
Lautenberg grew up poor, the son of Eastern European immigrants. His father died of cancer when Lautenberg was still a teenager. After serving in World War II, he went to Columbia University on the GI bill -- and later started a successful paycheck processing company. One of the richest members of Congress, he has never forgotten where he came from -- or the role government can play in improving people's lives.
"I see lots of little children here," he went on. "I love every one of these little ones. I'd like to see them healthy. ... If I want my grandchildren to breathe clean air, I have to get everyone's grandchildren to breathe clean air. Those are the fundamentals that move me along."
Need for reform
There is near universal agreement among most stakeholders -- lawmakers, the chemical industry, the Obama administration -- that some sort of TSCA reform is necessary.
Even though the law has been around since the mid-1970s, U.S. EPA has screened fewer than 200 chemicals of the roughly 80,000 currently in commerce. The agency has only banned the use of five chemicals as a result of those screenings. More, the program is perennially listed in the Government Accountability Office's annual "high risk list" of troubled federal programs (Greenwire, Feb. 16).
And last year, the President's Cancer Panel linked chemical exposures to cancer and said TSCA "may be the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of environmental contaminants."
Enter Lautenberg's "Safe Chemicals Act of 2011." Like the bill that stalled in the run-up to the midterm elections last year, Lautenberg is seeking to require chemical companies to prove substances are safe before they go on the market. It would also require EPA to prioritize chemicals based on the health risks they pose and grant the agency the authority to act swiftly on toxic chemicals. It would also create a public database of chemical information and incentivize the creation of alternative, nontoxic "green" chemicals (E&ENews PM, April 14).
Even though there is agreement that TSCA reform is necessary, Lautenberg faces stiff political headwinds in his effort this year. The Democratic majority in the Senate has shrunk since last year, and, of course, Republicans now control the House.
On top of that, Republicans have been particularly critical of EPA regulations, so any effort to grant them more authority to issue stricter standards is perhaps best characterized as a long shot.
Lautenberg, nevertheless, dismissed those arguments and remains optimistic.
"There are those who don't like change, period, and there's the drumbeat that rules and regulations are spoiling things," he said. "Well, rules and regulations were not what hurt the automobile industry -- an industry that we owned and developed. And we lost it because it was poorly managed. We ought not to lose something as positive as saving children's health because we're not willing to work" on it.
Politically, the importance of Inhofe to Lautenberg's efforts is hard to overstate. Having the ranking member of the committee sign on would undoubtedly lead to other Republican support. It would also play a pivotal role in getting industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to sign on.
In an interview with E&E Daily, Inhofe did not rule out backing some sort of TSCA reform. But he did not sound like he was leaping at the opportunity, either.
"He's dedicated to the issue, there is no question about that," Inhofe said. "But there hasn't been too much flexibility on either side."
Inhofe added: "The ball is in his court to sit down with all these stakeholders and make a determination."
Industry is another big hurdle for Lautenberg, though there even seems to be some movement among those groups.
"They have really worked hard to keep an open dialogue and that's important," said Scott Jensen of ACC. "With the legislation that was introduced, we're still not comfortable with it. But the fact is that we can continue to discuss this and look for ways to move forward. I think it has been a good dialogue."
There is also the sense that Lautenberg is not particularly willing to work across the aisle -- a characteristic pointed out by the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates' (SOCMA) Bill Allmond. Allmond commended Lautenberg for his dedication to the issue but said the senator has not reached out to his group's members as much as they would like.
"I think he is viewed by many as someone who is more reluctant to work with both sides of the aisle on these legacy issues," Allmond said. "He has not done a good job over the many years in diversifying his pool of stakeholders."
Lautenberg said he is undeterred by that criticism. He said he has met with several Republicans on the issue and, in particular, Republican women senators are receptive to the idea of reform. But he also knows how important getting someone like Inhofe on board is.
"If we can get a colleague from the Republican side to join us, I think we will be really expeditious in moving this," he said. "I think we can get it done. I feel very good about it."
He also said that he is willing to work with Republicans and industry to incorporate their concerns. But, he added, he is not going to completely water down the bill and plans to move on a bill this Congress to bring attention to the issue -- whether they are with him or against him.
"It would be so much better if we could encourage a member of the committee from the other side to join us," he said. "But we are determined to do it anyway."
Importantly, Lautenberg appears to have the full support of Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
"Frank is a senator with a conscience," she told E&E Daily. "He is always caring about the most vulnerable in our population, especially our children. I think he brings a tremendously effective human touch to his work because he is such a loving grandfather but also such a successful business person."
Boxer also indicated she is working on when to move Lautenberg's bill forward in the committee.
Until then, Lautenberg vowed to continue stakeholder meetings and sounded driven as ever that this year could finally be the year.
"It's customary in this office that if we find things that we can influence and that helps protect the health of people -- particularly infants and young people," he said. "I am very optimistic about the ability to do this, if we can just get some clear air ahead of us, get the debt ceiling in place, get some other financial things in place, I think we can move this bill into the Senate, and I believe that if we do it'll get it through the Senate."