Senate OKs landmark reform bill; conference talks up next

By Sam Pearson | 12/18/2015 07:06 AM EST

The Senate yesterday approved a bipartisan bill to update the nation’s decades-old chemicals law by voice vote, a quiet cap to what had been a contentious and yearslong debate over the reform.

In a somewhat unexpected move, Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) asked for and received unanimous consent to amend and pass a House bill, H.R. 2576, or the "TSCA Modernization Act."

And, despite numerous previous procedural and policy hurdles, the upper chamber in just minutes approved the broadest rewrite of an environmental law in decades. In a week dominated by discussion of an omnibus spending bill, passage of the bill came quietly and with a vote conducted with virtually no advance notice.

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The legislation — which had a difficult path through the Senate — will now be considered by a conference committee to iron out differences between the version passed in the upper chamber and in the House, which approved its own rendering earlier this year by a 398-1 vote (E&E Daily, June 24).

"I think this will be looked back on as a major environmental accomplishment," Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who sponsored and pushed the reform efforts in the upper chamber with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), said on the Senate floor, adding that lawmakers plan to hold a press conference with other co-sponsors later this morning.

The Senate’s voice vote came as the bill’s sponsors had resolved a last-minute disagreement with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) regarding how she would be able to participate in the conference committee.

Though passage of the bill came quickly, it comes after years of gridlock. For years, some Democrats pushed for a broad chemicals bill that would require chemical manufacturers to prove their substances were safe before using them, but industry and Republicans blocked the effort amid concerns that it would stifle competitiveness.

With consumers and advocacy groups pressing for changes to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, over time industry groups and GOP lawmakers agreed that the law, under which U.S. EPA has banned just five chemicals, should be fixed. The question was how to do it.

"The law was broken," Udall told E&E Daily after the vote. "So I just committed with everyone I could work with to see that we would get it done, and I always had confidence and I still do."

Passage of a reform bill has taken years and the dedication of several reform advocates.

Of note, days after reaching an agreement in 2013 between longtime chemical reform proponent Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Vitter on an earlier bill, the "Chemicals in Commerce Act," the New Jersey senator died, leaving the bill unfinished. Negotiations later collapsed in late 2014, and Boxer released a draft of legislation that Vitter said was not meant for disclosure (E&E Daily, Sept. 19, 2014).

In hearings in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lawmakers sparred over a litany of issues, like what standard chemicals should have to meet, how fast EPA should be required to review them, and — most crucially — whether state authorities should yield to, or be pre-empted by, a federal program.

Environmental groups found themselves at odds over whether the legislation was effective enough and was not the subject of undue industry influence. Supporters, meanwhile, touted the bill as a fitting tribute to Lautenberg’s legacy in the Senate and as much-needed reform to a troubled program.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Inhofe credited Lautenberg as well as Udall and Vitter for shepherding the bill.

Off the floor, Udall and Inhofe posed for a photo with staffers from their offices and staff for Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Vitter, some of whom had worked on the issue for years.

Udall stepped around a hallway to call Lautenberg’s widow, Bonnie, to tell her the news. Bonnie Lautenberg testified at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing earlier this year, and supporters have said she has been following the bill’s progress closely.

"She’s just elated," Udall said.

On to the conference committee

On Wednesday, Inhofe said that progress on the bill had stalled because Boxer had backed out of an agreement to allow the bill to proceed to the floor by unanimous consent. Boxer evidently reversed course, allowing the bill to proceed yesterday.

Inhofe had nicer words for Boxer yesterday, saying that Boxer understood that the bill would pass eventually because it had so many co-sponsors.

"I think she appreciated that we had a lot of her language in there, and while she was not working on the bill originally …. she was very helpful in getting it passed," Inhofe said.

In a statement, Boxer said that her concerns over process had been resolved.

Boxer said she allowed the bill to move forward because it had improved over its original form. Boxer sought to assure her constituents that she would have input on the conference committee to look out for Californians and vulnerable populations.

"I have been assured that as the House and Senate bills are merged into one, the voices of those who have been most deeply affected, including nurses, breast cancer survivors, asbestos victims and children, will be heard," Boxer said. "I will have the opportunity to be in the room at every step and express their views."

Boxer added that she "will stay intimately involved as the bill moves forward, and I will share my views openly. I look forward to the work ahead, and I am optimistic that we can reach a fair and just conclusion."

In a statement, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a co-sponsor of the bill, praised his colleagues for coming together on a tough issue.

"Bipartisanship is hard to come by in the Senate these days, especially on environmental issues," Carper said.

Carper added that he would work to push the legislation "across the finish line."

Vitter in a statement called it part of a "move toward the future embracing these major, necessary reforms."

Stakeholders react

Though some large environmental organizations have so far declined to support the TSCA reform bill, supporters have managed to win over industry groups, some environmental groups and some animal welfare and wildlife groups, among others.

In a statement, Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney in the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said conferees must remove problematic language from both the House and Senate bills for the bill to be sufficiently protective.

"Although the Senate bill has improved over time, it still has significant flaws that must be fixed in conference," Rosenberg said. "As the bill moves forward, Congress should ensure that the final legislation marries the best aspects of the Senate and House bills and drops the worst."

In a statement, Andy Igrejas, the director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said the bill remains problematic, including a provision that would make it harder to evaluate the safety of imported products "like most of the toys under your Christmas tree."

"When Congress reconciles the House and Senate versions, they should focus on the fundamentals of reform and simply empower and direct EPA to identify and restrict toxic chemicals," Igrejas said.

The Environmental Defense Fund — a key supporter of the bill — praised its passage.

Passage marks "the best chance in two generations to put an end to a national scandal — a dangerously ineffective chemical safety system that was broken on arrival in 1976," EDF President Fred Krupp said in a statement.

Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in a blog post that he had a hard time imagining earlier in his career that a bill of this nature would win the support of such a broad coalition.

"It’s worth savoring the present moment, brought to all of us by a rare amalgam of political risk-taking and courage, willingness to seek common ground and compromise, dedication to one’s key principles while acknowledging the legitimacy of others’, and countless days, weeks and months of plain old hard work," Denison wrote.

Industry groups said last night that the bill would help provide increased economic certainty for their member companies.

"Today’s bipartisan passage of the ‘Frank R. Lautenberg Chemicals Safety for the 21st Century Act’ is a watershed moment in the history of U.S. environmental legislation," American Chemistry Council President Cal Dooley said in a statement. "This legislation demonstrates what is possible when stakeholders put their differences aside and come together to work toward a common objective."

The bill, if it becomes law, "will enable manufacturers to further improve products while growing the economy and creating jobs," National Association of Manufacturers Vice President of Energy and Resources Policy Ross Eisenberg said in a statement.

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.

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