WASHINGTON – The state is seeking federal help to get rid of toxic chemicals in Commencement Bay, which remains polluted after a $100 million cleanup effort.
The contaminants, called phthalates, are used in piping, packaging, soft plastic toys and many other products.
“I am concerned about what phthalates might mean in the food chain in Puget Sound, and for the people that harvest its food, but I don’t know what to do about it,” Ted Sturdevant, director of the state Department of Ecology, told a Senate panel last week.
“We don’t have any means of stopping or reducing this pollution stream, or protecting our investment in the bay.”
Sturdevant wants Congress to help by passing the Safe Chemicals Act, which would force the Environmental Protection Agency to identify and restrict the “worst of the worst” chemicals.
They are defined as chemicals – such as lead, mercury and flame retardants – that are persistent and build up in the food chain.
States also are pushing Congress to provide more grant money to reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals.
“We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t ask for money,” Sturdevant said in an interview.
Sturdevant spoke to the Senate in support of the Safe Chemicals Act bill, which would overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act, which critics say has done little to protect the public. Among other things, the bill would require companies to provide basic health and safety information for all chemicals as a condition for selling them.
Companies that refused to disclose the information would not be allowed to sell those products.
Sturdevant said the pollution in Commencement Bay “is exactly the kind of problem that should be addressed by the act, but is not.” He told senators that state environmental agencies need “a federal system that works” to help them deal with new sources of pollution.
“When those chemicals come from a pipe or a smokestack, we have the tools and the know-how to do our job,” Sturdevant said. “But when they come from ubiquitous products like the plastic casing of a television or the foam in our furniture, we haven’t had the tools or the know-how to do our job.”
In the case of phthalates, Sturdevant said there is growing concern about their safety at the same time that the chemical industry is defending their use.
“Is this stuff safe or not?” he asked. “Without a clear answer from an effective federal agency, then we are left to figure that on our own.”
Sturdevant said a stronger federal role is needed because it’s difficult and cumbersome for states to act alone in stopping chemical products from crossing their borders.
Under the current system, he said, there’s “a patchwork of chemical regulations” dealing with chemicals that vary by state.
Proponents of the bill say the 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act “grandfathered” 62,000 chemicals that were in use at the time, never requiring the EPA to review their safety.
They also say the law is so flawed that it does not require chemical companies to show their new products are safe before selling them.
The new legislation, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would shift the burden of proof to chemical companies, which would be forced to demonstrate the safety of industrial chemicals before putting them on the market.
“The shocking truth is that the current law does not require tests to ensure chemicals used in everyday household products are safe,” Lautenberg said when he introduced the bill earlier this year.
He said he wanted to “breathe new life into a long-dead statute by empowering EPA to separate the chemicals that help from the chemicals that hurt.”
At last week’s hearing, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who heads the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said improvements in the law are needed to protect infants, children and pregnant women, who are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals.
She said the current law is so weak the EPA has not even been able to completely ban cancer-causing asbestos, after the courts ruled in 1991 that the federal government had not proved it posed an “unreasonable risk” to public health.
Some are worried that Congress might go too far.
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top-ranked Republican on the Senate’s environment committee, said any changes to the law should be done “the right way, without harming American innovation or shipping jobs overseas.”
“It is vital, given an unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent and numerous costly new regulations coming (from) this administration, that we make sure any TSCA reforms help to not only protect human health, but jobs and the economy,” he said.
Cal Dooley, president and chief executive officer of the American Chemistry Council, called the proposal “an ill-conceived regulatory system” and said it had “fundamental flaws.”
As an example, he said, one requirement would require chemical companies to assure “reasonable certainty of no harm … from aggregate exposure” of chemicals, a standard he said would be virtually impossible to meet.
He warned it could result in “regulatory paralysis” for the chemical industry.
Dooley said chemical companies also would be forced to share confidential data with the public, compromising their private business information.
In Tacoma, Sturdevant said, the results of the cleanup efforts at Commencement Bay initially looked promising.
“Last year, we finally started seeing improved sediment and fish health in the bay,” he told the committee.
Now, he said, phthalates are pouring into the bay in polluted storm-water runoff, and they settle on top of the clean sediments.
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009 rhotakainen @mcclatchydc.com