With the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), environmentalists have lost one of their most effective congressional champions.
Ironically, Lautenberg had been on the cusp of realizing one of his long-sought goals: an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 37-year-old law which has done little to boost federal oversight of harmful chemicals. Lautenberg recently brokered a bipartisan compromise with Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee that would give the Environmental Protection Agency the power to review chemicals now on the market, and require testing when officials have concerns a substance poses a health risk. Before new chemicals could be offered for commercial sale, EPA would have to conclude they were likely to be safe.
But even without that reform, Lautenberg's legacy includes several key laws that protect Americans from exposure to dangerous chemicals, such as the one starting EPA's Toxic Release Inventory program. That program compels companies to disclose exactly what chemicals they are emitting through their operations: it has shed light on sources of pollution across the country, and prompted many firms to install stricter controls. He also managed to extend the "polluter pays" funding mechanism for the Superfund program from 1990 to 1995 through a budget reconciliation bill, and authored legislation easing the cleanup of industrial sites known as brown fields.
“There was no greater champion for protecting children from toxic chemicals than Senator Frank Lautenberg," said League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinsi, who noted in a statement the late senator had a 96 percent positive lifetime LCV rating.
The New Jersey senator's focus on air quality and chemical exposure stemmed from personal experience: his father worked in the state's silk mills and died of cancer in his early 40s, which Lautenberg blamed on the factories' poor air quality.
"He approached these issues in a bread and butter way that reflected where he came from," said Andy Igrejas, who grew up in Bloomfield, NJ, and now serves as executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
Lautenberg took on three major Washington lobbies during his time in Congress: the tobacco, gun and chemical industries. He wrote the law that helped remove asbestos and radon from schools, as well as the ones banning smoking on airlines and smoking in federally-funded locations that serve children.
Alex Formuzis, Lautenberg's former spokesman, said the late senator not only enjoyed seeing kids on airplanes that are now smoke-free, but liked seeing smokers grow fidgety as the plane ride stretched on for some time.
"Do you know who's responsible for you not being able to smoke on his flight?" he would ask his seatmate, according to Formuzis. "They would say, 'No. Who?' And he would say, 'It was me,' and he would hand them his business card."
Former Lautenberg chief of staff Sander Lurie, who worked on his staff from 1991 to 2001, said Lautenberg's skill lay in his ability to bring along other colleagues on the issue that mattered most to him.
"He had the ability to negotiate from perfection down to what is possible," he said.
Lautenberg kept busy with Congressional business until just a couple weeks ago. He voted in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 16 in favor of confirming Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator.
The next week, he released his compromise proposal with Vitter on chemical reform.
"He really was working hard on this right up until the end," Igrejas said.