U.S. EPA is set to withdraw two prominent chemical regulations, including a list of materials recommended for increased enforcement that had stalled under executive review for more than three years, according to two sources briefed by the Obama administration on the decision.
Additions to the "chemicals of concern" list were first sent by EPA to the White House for review in May 2010, but have languished at the White House Office of Management and Budget despite pressure from congressional Democrats and public health groups.
By withdrawing the list, EPA would end a push for improved oversight of chemicals that the agency says "may present an unreasonable risk to human health and/or the environment." The 2010 proposal included chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), several phthalates and the flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE).
Also being pulled is a rule that would make it more difficult for chemical manufacturers to claim confidential business information to shield the identities of new chemicals from the public in health and safety studies. That rule was sent to OMB in December 2011.
The withdrawal of both could come as early as today, sources familiar with the decision said. Both rules are still listed as under review on a federal website that tracks regulations.
“This is a devastating blow to the effort to protect public health against dangerous chemicals and a clear illustration of the risks human health and our children face when discretion is left to bean counters in the White House,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.
The White House and EPA didn't respond to requests for comment on the matter.
It's unclear, sources said, why the two rules will be pulled now, especially after they have lingered untouched for so long. The chemicals of concern list was opposed by the chemical industry, which has said that the move would give EPA incentive to seek regulatory action without setting the criteria by which the chemicals are selected.
But environmental groups have argued that EPA should have the right to improve regulations of potentially harmful substances and that the authority for the list was laid out in the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.
The confidential business information (CBI) rule would deny chemical companies the ability to hide the identities of substances in health and safety studies, despite industry concerns that the move would damage competitiveness.
The American Chemistry Council declined to comment on the potential rule changes.
Richard Denison, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said the failure of the Obama administration to advance the "very modest steps" signaled another need for Congress to pass an update to TSCA and strengthen EPA's regulatory authority.
"It makes it pretty clear to me that in the absence of very clear requirements and deadlines for acting under the authorizing statute for EPA ... we can expect that there will be forces that prevent or slow down EPA's ability to act," Denison said.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is weighing a bipartisan overhaul of TSCA, although Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has expressed concerns about the bill as it's written, and environmentalists say the measure may not contain the kind of strict deadlines they want. It's expected that the committee will continue debating the bill when Congress returns next week.
As drafted, the "Chemical Safety Improvement Act" (S. 1009) would boost EPA's ability to restrict certain chemicals and would require that new substances be screened before entering commerce. Opponents have claimed that the bill leaves open too many opportunities for chemical companies to claim CBI, but Senate aides working on the bill say the CBI language goes further than the current statute and would let EPA request more information as necessary.
Aides have said they're also working to write stricter deadlines for executive action into the bill in response to critics.
The expected withdrawal of the regulations has also brought to light continuing concerns about executive reviews at OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which has been criticized for letting rules sit for months or years longer than their mandated deadlines.
"The most troubling part of all of this is that these are actions OIRA is taking with no public accountability whatsoever," Denison said. "By not even allowing EPA to propose these rules and take public comment, they're blocking the Democratic rulemaking process."