A proposed overhaul of how the country regulates toxic chemicals came under sharp attack today from officials of California and several other states.
Backers of the bipartisan plan say it would make the public safer by giving the federal government broader authority to test and regulate chemicals. But in return for backing that greater federal authority, the chemical industry has insisted on limits to the power of states to add additional regulations of their own.
In a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Michael Troncoso, senior counsel for the California attorney general's office, warned the panel that the measure would have "potentially crippling effects" on California's ability to enforce some of its landmark consumer protection laws and "strip away in a significant way the state's ability to regulate toxics."
The proposal, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, was hailed only a few months ago as a breakthrough -- an opportunity to fix a federal chemical regulatory regime that has been broken for decades. Under current law the EPA screens only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of chemicals that exist in the marketplace. States like California have filled the void by imposing their own, tougher regulations.
The industry-backed legislation, worked out earlier this year between conservative Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who had close ties to consumer groups, was intended to expand protections nationwide while saving the chemical industry from constantly having to adapt to different rules in different states.
But attorneys general from at least nine states say the proposal as written has major flaws and would ultimately undermine their ability to protect the public. California officials say it would imperil Proposition 65, which voters enacted in 1986 to limit contamination of groundwater and make businesses disclose when consumers are exposed to carcinogens.
The hearing, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), marked the launch of her counteroffensive against the plan.
"Too many states are objecting," she said. "We need to fix it .… If we add up all the population from the attorneys general who wrote to us ... it is a majority of the population that has concerns about this. What right does anyone sitting up here have to overturn the will of the people in our states?"
Vitter and other Republicans on the panel pushed to keep the proposal moving forward, invoking Lautenberg's name often, and suggesting the concerns raised by California and others are misguided. They say the bill was never intended to undermine state laws and that they are open to revisions.
"In no way did we intend to remove the authority of any state to protect their air, water and citizens," Vitter said. "We are compiling clarifications to the bill. Certainly Frank nor I wanted to neuter Proposition 65 in any way."
As the hearing continued through the day, Boxer and Vitter sent out dueling fact sheets, each accusing the other of not being straight with the public about how states would be affected by the measure.
Not all state officials weighing in on the proposal oppose it. Michael Dorsey, an official from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said the lack of federal regulations leaves residents in his state particularly vulnerable, as the state does not have the money to create its own testing programs and oversight agency. He said most states are in the same predicament.
"Most of the country … lacks the resources and personnel to implement chemical testing programs of their own," he said. "This legislation deserves the chance to have the problems ironed out and become law."