Bill updating the US Toxic Substances Control Act has finally passed both chambers of Congress

The nearly 40-year old law that governs America’s chemicals policy, which had appeared primed for updating back in March, has faced months of ups and downs but is now on course to finally be revamped in early 2016.

The Senate broke its deadlock and at last passed legislation to revamp the US Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) on the evening of 17 December, right before Congress adjourned for 2015.

The bill, which attracted 61 bipartisan cosponsors and passed the Senate unanimously after two years of negotiations, would give the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) new authorities to obtain new information on chemicals, and require a finding of safety before new chemicals enter the market. The general consensus is that the EPA has not effectively regulated chemicals under the TSCA.

The legislation, which was put forward by Democrat Tom Udall and Republican David Vitter, would also require the EPA toprioritise the chemicals of most concern first, and it sets aggressive, judicially enforceable deadlines for EPA decisions. The bill appears to meet the six principles for TSCA reform that the Obama administration laid out in 2009.

Similar TSCA reform legislation was approved by the House of Representatives in June by a vote of 398–1. The Senate and House versions must now be reconciled. A final bill is expected to reach Obama’s desk early in the new year.

‘As many as 1,500 new chemicals come on the market each year, but there is no cop on the beat making sure they’re safe for consumers or our environment,’ Udall said. ‘This bill will require the EPA to test all of them, make sure they’re safe and put the focus where it ought to be – on how these chemicals affect the most vulnerable.’

Since the TSCA was enacted, the EPA has restricted just five chemicals, and prevented only four chemicals from going to market – out of the more than 23,000 new chemicals manufactured since 1976, according to Udall.

Approval all-round

The Senate’s newly passed TSCA reform legislation has earned the support of the chemical industry and even some environmental groups, like the Environmental Defense Fund.

The American Chemistry Council’s president and CEO, Cal Dooley, said this ‘comprehensive legislation’ will protect human health and the environment, build confidence in the US chemical regulatory system and address the commercial and competitive needs of the US chemical industry. He called the bill’s bipartisan passage ‘a watershed moment in the history of US environmental legislation.’

The National Association of Chemical Distributors’ president, Eric Byer, also praised the bill as a ‘strong, credible federal chemical regulatory programme.’ He said it is ‘crucial’ for the American public as well as small businesses, including US chemical distributors and their customers.

Even Senator Barbara Boxer, a senior Democrat who has repeatedly opposed previous TSCA reform efforts in the Senate as too weak, expressed enthusiasm about the legislation, describing it as ‘vastly improved’ over the original bill. Boxer, who has been accused by the chemical industry of single-handedly blocking bipartisan efforts to reform TSCA and will not be seeking re-election in 2016, described the process as ‘a difficult, multi-year odyssey.’

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called the TSCA reform legislation ‘flawed,’ and said that it must be fixed. Among the changes that the NRDC is calling for is the elimination of language that it says prevents states from protecting their citizens before the federal government has taken action on a chemical. 

In the House bill, the NRDC urges the removal of a provision that prevents the EPA from enforcing the requirement that it select the chemicals to evaluate for safety.

The next session of Congress will convene on 5 January, 2016 for the House and on 11 January, 2016 for the Senate. All sides will be working to complete a final TSCA-reform bill in early 2016, both Vitter and Udall stress.