Congress is nearing an overhaul of the landmark 1976 law addressing toxic substances. It would give the Environmental Protection Agency new resources for tests of potentially harmful chemicals and keep the worst of them out of our drinking cups, furniture and waterways.
The legislative reform should make it easier to keep harmful chemicals out of products and the environment in all 50 states, and not just those like Washington that have been legal pioneers.
Unfortunately, a bipartisan Senate proposal, which seeks to speed up regulatory actions, has language that also pre-empts state regulatory efforts.
The Washington Toxics Coalition points out that Washington was first to require that manufacturers make public reports of toxic chemicals in children’s products. It was first to limit phthalates, lead and cadmium in kids products, first to outlaw the flame retardant PBDE from certain furnishings, and first to ban the chemical BPA (bisphenol A) from plastic baby bottles.
A vote is expected in the Senate this week. But our state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, haven’t said how they’ll vote. A Murray spokeswoman said she is waiting to review final bill language before deciding.
The Senate’s toxics modernization bill was written by Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana. S. 697 is named after former-Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, known for advocacy of environmental safeguards.
Governors from California, Vermont, New Hampshire and Washington signed a letter last week urging Senate leaders to not let the bills pre-empt state efforts.
The governors’ letter criticizes one provision of S. 697 that puts state regulatory efforts on pause once federal rule-making begins. The governors say there needs to be a way for states to obtain waivers in order to continue state rule-making, and they want to grandfather in state rules that are stricter — or that allow future actions that are stricter — than the federal standard.
We agree there needs to be leeway for states to move more quickly against toxins that pose special risks to their environments. An example is Washington’s action a few years ago against the PBDE flame retardant; the action was taken in part because of concerns about the chemical’s impact on orca in Puget Sound.
The U.S. House has passed its reform, H.R. 2576, setting up an eventual negotiation with the Senate on a final bill. Whatever compromise is reached should allow stronger rules in the states.