States fight chemical industry over proposed rules

An effort in Congress to modernize a patchwork system of state and federal laws governing chemical safety is generating debate between a bipartisan group of state legislators who say the update would rob states of the ability to regulate sometimes toxic substances within their own borders and businesses who say they need regulatory certainty to grow jobs and the economy.

In a letter sent to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairman and the ranking member, Reps. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the National Conference of State Legislators said a draft version of the Chemicals in Commerce Act would take authority to regulate chemicals out of the hands of states and localities. Regulation would be entirely up to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Legislators are particularly concerned with sections that would update rules by which chemical manufacturers would notify the EPA of research on their products and document that science.

Shimkus’s draft version of the bill would vest all authority for rule-making, and for concluding whether a chemical is safe to use, with the head of the EPA, leaving states without input on the process.

Three sections of the bill “would essentially eliminate state policymakers’ ability to regulate toxic chemicals at the state level by divesting all authority away from states and localities and placing this authority solely with the Administrator” of the EPA, Oregon Sen. Bruce Starr (R) and Nevada Sen. Debbie Smith (D) wrote.

“This approach would prevent states from establishing or continuing to enforce any state regulation of chemicals if the EPA has made a safety determination on the chemical, would prohibit states from regulating or banning any new chemical when the EPA makes a safety determination, and would eliminate states’ ability to enact stricter or stronger laws than the federal government,” the letter says.

But chemical industry leaders say the patchwork of state regulations puts a burden on businesses with already-low margins. Business leaders say they support federal preemption of stronger state restrictions.

“If the [EPA] has acted, it does not make sense to allow a state to take contradictory action,” Roger Harris, chairman of the National Association of Chemical Distributors and president of a small chemical company near Chicago, told the environment and economy subcommittee Wednesday. EPA preemption of state laws “is of fundamental importance in maintaining national markets and retaining business support for reform.”

At least 22 states have laws that regulate toxic chemicals to a greater degree than the federal government. Three states are moving to establish biomonitoring programs that keep tabs on the presence of chemicals in residents, while twelve states, from conservative Texas and South Carolina to liberal Oregon and California, allow state agencies to declare certain chemicals hazardous.

For example, twelve states prohibit the manufacture or sale of products containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers and similar chemicals, frequently used as flame retardants, which some studies have linked to inhibitions in development of children’s nervous systems. Under the proposed changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which passed Congress in 1976, those state measures that differ from federal guidelines would be nullified.

States would be free to regulate specific chemicals before the EPA takes action on them.

“The fact that states can’t even go stricter/stronger than the federal government in this area is really troubling for us,” said Susan Frederick, senior counsel at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “States are usually given floors, not ceilings.”

Tonko said he wanted states to keep the right to set their own rules.

“Federal law should set a floor to ensure a basic level of protection to all our citizens, but states must retain the right to act on behalf of their own citizens and to address circumstances that may be unique to their situations,” Tonko said in a statement to The Washington Post. “At this point, the draft legislation removes state protections from dangerous chemicals while failing to strengthen the federal law.”

Jordan Haverly, Shimkus’s spokesman, said in an e-mail that the Chemicals in Commerce Act remains just a draft, and that changes are likely before it is formally introduced. State supremacy came up at Wednesday’s hearing and has been subject of “bipartisan staff and member-level discussions,” Haverly said.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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