Senate Committee Advances Chemical Safety Reforms

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30:  Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) questions
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) questions members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during an oversight hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. The commissioiners answered senators' questions about their transparency, travel budgets, the continued clean up of the Fukushima disaster in Japan and other related issues. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced legislation on Tuesday that would update the nation's 39-year-old law governing chemical safety, over the objections of some Democrats on the panel.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, introduced by Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), passed by a vote of 15 to 5. All Republicans on the committee voted for the bill, along with four Democrats. The version passed in the committee was a "manager's amendment" that included some significant changes in response to criticism of the bill's original version, which Vitter and Udall introduced in March. The updated version picked up the votes of Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), and Cory Booker (N.J.), who had all advocated for changes.

Vitter praised the bill's passage, calling the legislation "an honest, balanced approach built on compromise." Udall also celebrated the advancement of the legislation, noting that it "isn't a perfect bill, but it is a very good one." The bill updates the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which has been widely criticized for failing to adequately regulate the thousands of chemicals currently on the market.

The new version includes some major changes to the federal provisions that preempt state laws on chemicals. It would give states more leeway to set their own regulations on specific chemicals while the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of making a federal safety determination, and ensures that if the EPA doesn't meet deadlines for making a decision or for acting on a state's waiver request to set their own rules, that state will be allowed to move forward with its own regulations.

The legislation also excludes state chemical disclosure laws from preemption, as well as any state regulations that fall under clean air or clean water laws. It pushes back the date after which state laws are set to be preempted by federal laws from the original bill's deadline of Jan. 1, 2015, to August 1, 2015.

In addition, the new version adjusts the bill's language to require that the EPA designate chemicals as high-priority if they've been identified as a "significant" health hazard, rather than a "high hazard," as designated in the original legislation. It also requires expedited action on chemicals that have already been identified as hazardous and allows citizen lawsuits to challenge the EPA's determination that a chemical is a low priority.

But these changes did not go far enough for the legislation's critics in the committee, most vocal among them Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "We got rid of a horrible bill," said Boxer, referring to the older version of the Vitter-Udall legislation. "We have a bill that makes progress. We will continue to work on it until it really protects the people who are hurting."

Boxer criticized the bill for not imposing strong enough deadlines for regulating chemicals, and for continuing to exempt states from setting standards for chemicals if the federal EPA is considering action on them.

The California Democrat offered a handful of amendments in committee that failed to get enough votes to pass, but said she has a list of 27 amendments to offer as the bill moves forward. "If this gets to the floor, you'll hear all of them," she said.

Environmental and public health groups are also calling for additional changes. Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney in the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the changes an "important step forward" but criticized the committee for rejecting several amendments that the group said would have addressed additional concerns.

Vitter's office said they expect the bill to go before the full Senate in the coming weeks.