Chemical Regulation Reform Clears Senate

In a move hailed by SPI, the ACC and other trade groups, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to reform the country’s 39-year-old chemical regulation: TSCA.


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On December 17, the U.S. Senate approved S. 697, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, on a unanimous voice vote, leaving only a conference committee with the House of Representatives and President Obama’s signature standing in the way of finally reforming the nation’s antiquated chemical regulations.

Signed on Oct. 11, 1976, by President Gerald Ford, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) taxes the Environmental Protection Agency with regulating the introduction of new or already existing chemicals. Failure to update the law, at a time when many consumers have become increasingly concerned about the chemicals in everyday products, including plastics, had prompted local governments, including the states of California, Oregon and Vermont, to enact their own restrictions on chemicals. The potential for an inconsistent patchwork of regulations around chemicals, and the plastics they go into, had lead makers and consumers of those products to call on an overarching federal framework for regulation.

In a release, Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association praised senate passage of the reform, saying the legislation would have “the power to truly protect consumers while giving plastics companies reliable ground rules that are based on science.”

National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) President Eric R. Byer noted the impact on consumers and industry. “Today’s vote puts us on the doorstep of finally reforming an outdated law in a way that will build confidence in the U.S. chemical regulatory system, protect human health and the environment from significant risks, and meet the commercial and competitive interests of the U.S. chemical industry and the national economy,” Byer said.

American Chemistry Council (ACC) President and CEO Cal Dooley said senate passage represented a watershed moment in the history of U.S. environmental legislation, adding that the proposed law will “protect human health and the environment, build confidence in the U.S. chemical regulatory system and address the commercial and competitive needs of the U.S. chemical industry and the national economy.”

Martha Marrapese a partner at Washington D.C. lawfirm, Keller and Heckman LLP and an expert on TSCA told Plastics Technology that as passed, the Senate bill would have an impact on industry, noting that the primary reason for reforming TSCA was to give the EPA greater authority to regulate the approximately 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in when the original law passed back in 1976.

“[The House and Senate bills] do that,” Marrapese said. “Plus, EPA will have to stay on a schedule for identifying and reviewing existing chemicals. The agency’s decisions must be clear to the regulated community and the public. Both bills promote fiscal responsibility by giving EPA the ability to ask for fees to pay for substantial portions of the reviews. All of these factors add up to meaningful reform.”

Jon Kurrle, senior vice president, Government & Industry Affairs at SPI, told Plastics Technology that the new law would be beneficial to both plastics producers and processors.

“Basically the situation is that the existing law is so old it really undermined confidence out there in the states and among consumers,” Kurrle said. “It undermined confidence in the ability to regulate the manufacture, use, and importation of chemicals.” In doing so, the lack of TSCA reform had become as much a processor issue as it was an issue for petrochemical manufacturers.

The next step will be the formation of a House/Senate conference committee to iron out differences between the two bills, as the House passed a different version of the legislation in the spring. Should that be successful, the reconciled bill would then head to the White House, where the Obama administration had indicated support for the effort, particularly since it had been a bipartisan process all along.

Kurrle noted some discussion will be necessary, as the House version is much shorter than the Senate’s, but he said the SPI is optimistic about the prospect of passage and hopeful that the conference will be convened as soon as possible in 2016. “There were some last-minute procedural hurdles to get through to make sure every senator was satisfied,” Kurrle said of the bills progress through the senate, adding that “all signals from the Obama administration” with regards to the bill “are very positive.”

Back on May 22, 2013, Senators David Vitter and Frank Lautenberg started this process with the introduction of The Lautenberg-Vitter Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013. On June 3 of that year, Lautenberg passed away, and New Mexico Senator Tom Udall replaced him as the democratic cosponsor of the legislation. That spirit of bipartisanship has remained with the bill, as it ultimately garnered 57 cosponsors in the senate, including 35 Republicans and 22 Democrats.  

On his website, Udall noted that in the 39 years since TSCA was enacted, the EPA has been able to restrict just five chemicals (polychlorinated biphenyls, fully halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes, dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium), and it has prevented only four chemicals from going to market. That out of the more than 23,000 new chemicals manufactured since 1976, according to Udall.