WASHINGTON — The House passed landmark legislation Tuesday that would overhaul the nation’s chemical safety and regulatory laws for the first time in 40 years, strengthen the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and increase government scrutiny of thousands of chemicals that are used every day by Americans.
The House passed the legislation on a vote of 403 to 12. It will now go to the Senate, which is expected to pass it this week, based on a bicameral, bipartisan compromise that was reached. The White House has said it supports the legislation and President Obama is expected to sign it.
The legislation would make significant changes to The Toxic Substance Control Act, which has not been updated since it was approved in 1976 and subject thousands of new chemicals to more oversight and scrutiny.
“Chemical regulation can be awfully complicated, but this bill isn’t — it is just common sense,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). “By removing 40-year-old barriers and modernizing procedures, we reduce the risk to consumers. This means the chemicals and products we use every day will be safer for Americans.”
Several major industry associations — including the American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and Personal Care Products Council — voiced support for the bill in a letter to House lawmakers on Tuesday.
Lawmakers and experts have said the EPA, operating under a weak federal framework, has only been able to require testing for 200 of thousands of chemicals registered in the U.S. and has only been able to ban five dangerous substances. The new bill will establish new safety standards for toxic substances such as asbestos and formaldehyde, among scores of other chemicals that have not been regulated for years.
The new legislation will broaden the agency’s power and will now subject all chemicals to a risk-based safety review. It gives the EPA authority to require companies to provide safety and health data for untested chemicals and to prevent chemicals from reaching the market if they have been deemed unsafe. At present, the EPA must prove that the chemical poses a potential health or safety risk before it can require companies to provide data or testing.
One key component important to brands and retailers is a provision limiting states’ power to regulate chemicals, providing some preemption of state and local laws and regulations that is spelled out in the law.
“We believe this legislation would create a uniform national chemical management standard that both protects consumers and provides regulatory predictability for businesses,” said Rick Helfenbein, president and chief executive officer of the AAFA.
Businesses have long argued that a patchwork of state regulations and laws governing chemicals has imposed an undue burden on companies that are forced to navigate different rules governing chemicals in different states.
‘There has been a proliferation of chemical management regulation and legislation at the state, county and city level,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the AAFA. “What that has done is it has created a patchwork of different and sometimes conflicting chemical management and product safety rules that make compliance difficult, costly and in some cases impossible.”
“One of the reasons we favor the overhaul and reform is that it reasserts the federal preeminence in the chemical management regulatory effort,” he added. “So it will rein in this patchwork of conflicting regulations and actually a robust standard and regulatory process at the federal level so states won’t feel the need to go off on their own.”
Companies would prefer to have a strong, federal regulatory system in place that provides more certainty and safety, rather than operating under a patchwork of state laws that makes compliance difficult, even if it means more chemicals are coming under scrutiny of the EPA, officials said.
“One thing our industry fully recognized was that we needed to be able to provide the EPA with more information about chemicals and the need for testing or additional data and research,” said a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council. “In return for that what we get a strong national regulatory system that gives us certainty which is a benefit for us. It helps us know that we can innovate and grow without being concerned about a patchwork of regulations popping up in a state.”
Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain and customs policy at the NRF, said it is “extremely important” to retailers to have a national standard and federal regulatory process for chemicals, as opposed to a plethora of state laws that have “caused confusion.”
The American Alliance for Innovation, a broad coalition of industry groups, including the NRF, AAFA and others, called the bill “an historic opportunity for Congress to update a major environmental law, an achievement not made since the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The legislation would provide the nation’s primary chemical regulatory law with a much-needed update that is good for the economy, consumer safety and health, and the environment.”
The alliance said updating TSCA will ensure the safe use of chemicals and spur more development of new products, while protecting jobs.
The bill “creates a transparent, evidence-based, cohesive national program that will improve the regulation of chemicals used in commerce, provide more certainty and confidence in the regulatory framework, and have a significant impact on each of our industries, the products we make/or the services we provide, and the millions of workers we represent,” they said.