WASHINGTON — Sen. David Vitter is preparing for a marathon committee hearing Wednesday to begin congressional debate on his bipartisan plan to overhaul the nation’s chemical safety laws for the first time in decades.
Vitter’s Chemical Safety Improvement Act, or CSIA, is proposed as a compromise between industry and public health and environmental activists to fix the regulatory system set up by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.
The Louisiana Republican says he wants to provide more regulatory confidence for industries moving forward and is willing to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency more authority over chemical assessments and restrictions in order to do so.
Vitter and former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., announced the bipartisan bill in May, but Lautenberg died less than two weeks later at age 89.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of which Vitter is the ranking GOP member, is scheduled to consider the legislation Wednesday. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has voiced concern that the bill could weaken chemical regulations in a handful of states, like California, that have enacted their own more stringent chemical safety regulations.
Vitter asserts the point of the bill is finding the difficult-to-reach compromise needed to update the nation’s outdated laws.
The current law gives the EPA relatively little oversight for approving or restricting products, while leaving much of the work to individual states. Private industry has sought a more uniform framework. The proposed bill would create a clearer federal framework of guidelines and restrictions.
“We don’t want 50 different rulebooks. That is not practical, and we need a federal framework,” Vitter said when the bill was first proposed.
The legislation has 13 Republican and 13 Democratic cosponsors, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Opponents argue that the measure does very little to protect vulnerable communities.
“The most vulnerable communities are suffering from disproportionate exposure,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark, a deputy director of the WE ACT for Environmental Justice group. He cited Tuesday concerns of severe developmental problems with some south Louisiana children.
“All of these issues come about from exposure to toxic chemicals,” Corbin-Mark said, adding 84 percent of the residents have reported problems with recurring headache problems, asthma, seizures or worse.
He also pointed to the demise of small Louisiana communities like Sunrise, Diamond and Morrisonville — “communities that essentially no longer exist” — along the so-called “cancer alley” stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
Staff members of Vitter and other supporters of the bill handed out a “Claims vs. Facts” memo Tuesday. The bill does nothing to hurt the environment, the literature contends, but does not do as much as the environmentalists want.
Still, even the literature admits it is “partially true” that the bill does not protect communities near chemical plants.
“While addressing ‘hot spots’ is very important and such provisions were part of the Safe Chemicals Act, they were not included in the CSIA compromise,” according to the handout. “However, the bill does require EPA to consider populations with higher than average exposures when assessing the safety of chemicals, which likely would encompass communities located near chemical plants or other emitting facilities.”
Under current law, the EPA can call for safety testing only after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical may be dangerous. As a result, the EPA has only been able to require testing for roughly 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States, and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances since the law was first enacted in 1976.