The much-anticipated overhaul of outdated chemicals legislation has cleared Congress and is about to be signed into law


© Shutterstock

Environmental campaigners claim emissions from ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge plant are harming local residents

The effort to reform the 40-year-old law that governs the regulation of chemicals in the US has faced many false starts, especially over the last year, but now finally President Obama’s signature enacting a law to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is imminent.

The bill came to the Senate floor on the evening on 7 June by unanimous consent and passed on a voice vote, after the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the same legislation by 403-12 on 24 May. The President has made his support for the legislation clear.

TSCA reform was derailed in the Senate by Republican Senator Rand Paul, a former presidential hopeful, who blocked a vote on the measure in May over concerns that it represented an over-reach of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority. Paul said he needed more time to review the bill, which is about 180 pages long, and then lifted the hold on 7 June despite his continuing objections. Addressing the Senate floor during the vote on 7 June, he argued that the TSCA reform bill set to become law represents a ‘sweeping federal takeover of chemical regulations’.

The updated TSCA gives the EPA significantly more power and responsibilities, including the authority to require health and safety data for untested chemicals. The bill also sets mandatory and enforceable deadlines for the EPA to act to regulate chemicals of concern, and it gives industry a pathway to prioritise approval of new chemicals before they reach the market as well as protection over proprietary information.

The legislation is not only bipartisan, having earned the votes of bitter political enemies on this issue, it has also managed to attract the enthusiastic support of the chemical industry and a significant portion of the environmental lobby.

The American Chemistry Council’s president and CEO, Cal Dooley, said the TSCA reform bill is significant not only because it is the first major environmental law passed since 1990, but also because it will benefit US manufacturers, American families and the nation’s standing as the world’s leading innovator.

Loopholes and rollbacks

The Environmental Defense Fund also celebrated the TSCA reform bill clearing Congress, hailing it as the first major environmental legislation in over two decades. While the Natural Resources Defense Council agreed that the bill strengthens EPA’s programme to evaluate and regulate toxic chemicals, its president, Rhea Suh, warned that it contains ‘loopholes and rollbacks’ sought by the chemical industry. She said these include restrictions on the authority of states, and limits on the EPA monitoring chemicals in imported products that may be a threat to public health. 

The Environmental Working Group agreed that the TSCA rewrite now sitting on Obama’s desk represents a significant improvement over the current law, but said that it may not provide the EPA with the necessary resources or clear legal authority the agency needs to quickly review and, if needed, ban dangerous chemicals.

Last month, Republicans in the House released an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2017 that would slash the EPA’s funding and staffing. The bill, which would cut $164 million in spending from the agency’s current levels, is $1 billion less than President Obama requested.

The committee also proposes to reduce the EPA’s regulatory programmes by 6% below the current level, and 21% below the President’s request. Further, the House bill rejects Obama’s proposed increase in staffing for the EPA, holding the agency to the current capacity of 15,000 positions, the lowest since 1989.

The head of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers, recently told Bloomberg BNA that ‘it remains to be seen’ if the implementation of the revised TSCA law will be funded adequately in fiscal year 2017. Any funding levels proposed by the House will have to be negotiated with the Senate figures before they can be forwarded to the President for his signature into law.

To find out more about the TSCA law and its update, read our explainer here