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Chemical Regulation: Congress Eyes TSCA Reform, Pesticide Rules

by Cheryl Hogue , Britt E. Erickson
January 27, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 4

Congress is still attempting to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law that governs commercial chemicals. But for this reform to occur, Congress will have to vote on legislation by midyear before lawmakers shift their focus to election campaigns.

In 2013, most action on TSCA reform was in the Senate. The late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced the first-ever bipartisan bill to reform TSCA. Lautenberg died just weeks after introduction of the measure, S. 1009, after which Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) took the lead for Democrats on the legislation.

For the past half year, Vitter and Udall have been seeking common ground on changes they both acknowledge that the bill needs. One such change is setting deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to complete safety assessments of commercial chemicals, which the legislation would require for the first time.

Vitter says he and Udall are delicately building revised provisions to S. 1009. “I’m confident we’ll keep our strong bipartisan momentum going,” Vitter says, “to once and for all reform the outdated, unworkable Toxic Substances Control Act.”

The House of Representatives is preparing to move its own reform bill this year. In 2013, the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Environment & the Economy held four hearings on TSCA. Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of that subcommittee, announced in December 2013 that he intends to craft a TSCA modernization bill. Observers note his staff is working to drum up bipartisan support for the measure, which they expect to be introduced within weeks.

As the momentum for TSCA reform builds, more segments of the private sector are entering the debate. Notably, a newly formed business coalition, Companies for Safer Chemicals, is positioning itself in close alignment with health and environmental advocates by seeking tougher provisions than the chemical industry wants in TSCA modernization legislation.

“Strong lobbying by other industry groups has given policymakers the impression that business is monolithic in its support for weak legislation” to reform TSCA, according to the coalition, which includes consumer product, fashion, and food makers such as Seventh Generation, Patagonia, Stonyfield Farm, and Eileen Fisher.

Companies for Safer Chemicals opposes a provision in S. 1009 that the chemical industry desperately desires: preemption of state laws and regulation of chemicals to establish a single, nationwide system. The group says any rewrite of the chemical control law “must respect the rights of states to protect their residents when the federal government fails to do so.”

Pesticide regulation is also expected to be on the radar of lawmakers because of a provision in a version of a new five-year farm bill. Both the House and Senate have passed farm bill legislation, but the two chambers are struggling to reach consensus.

Supported by pesticide makers and grower groups, a provision in the House-passed version of the farm bill (H.R. 2642) would eliminate a 2009 court-ordered requirement that pesticide applicators obtain a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA) when applying pesticides in or over navigable waters. A CWA permit, provision proponents say, is unnecessary and duplicative because the effects of pesticides on aquatic environments are already considered under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

The Senate-passed version of the farm bill (S. 954) does not contain such a provision. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and committee member Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) blocked consideration of such legislation in 2012, arguing that EPA’s standard for assessing aquatic effects of pesticides under FIFRA is insufficient to protect the environment and humans from harm.

H.R. 2642 also addresses EPA’s failure to incorporate endangered species consultations into hundreds of pesticide safety reviews. It would direct EPA, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service to work together as required under the Endangered Species Act and follow the streamlined consultation approach outlined in a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report.


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