If a good law is implemented poorly, the effects can be disastrous. Could that be what’s happening to the new Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)?
In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was mandated by Congress to review chemicals used in American commerce. Known as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, the bill received bi-partisan backing in both houses of Congress. Supporters saw the bill as a much needed rewrite of the outdated TSCA, which became law more than 4 decades ago.
Named after 5-term Senator Frank Lautenberg, a staunch champion of consumer protections, the new law would amend the old TSCA to give the EPA better ability to assess and regulate toxic chemicals. There was no doubt this was needed. President Obama, who signed the bill into law, remarked at the time that of the thousands of chemicals in commerce, “only a tiny percentage have even been reviewed for health and safety.”
Lautenberg seemed like a crucial step toward protecting Americans from toxic chemicals, a rare moment where Democrats and Republicans could unite around a common goal. Since that time, however, there have been massive changes at the EPA. Under the stewardship of President Trump’s pro-business appointees, many fear the EPA will move away from science in favor of business interests.
Industry-Friendly Trump EPA Finalizes Rules for Chemical Safety
On June 22, 2017, on the 1-year anniversary of the passage of the Lautenberg, Trump’s EPA released the “final framework” for the new TSCA. This framework establishes the strategies and rules the EPA will use to figure out which chemicals need to be regulated.
So, who is in charge of writing these rules?
It sounded like a bad joke when Trump tapped Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA. Up until he became the Administrator, Pruitt fought against the federal agency on behalf of Big Business.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Pruitt then appointed Nancy Beck as deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Beck testified before Congress as a chemical industry lobbyist a mere month before she took her post at the EPA.
Now she is helping to write the rules for the new TSCA. That’s right, a former chemical-industry lobbyist is writing the rules that will regulate her previous employer.
Former Chemical Industry Lobbyist ‘Very Involved’ in New TSCA Rules
Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the ranking member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent a letter to Pruitt expressing his grave concern that Beck’s position is a threat to the success of the new TSCA. He wrote:
“Her appointment has the potential to undermine the scientific integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency’s TSCA implementation and the consumer confidence we sought to build with a reformed TSCA.”
Pallone, knowing Beck’s history re-writing science in industry-friendly terms, asked for more transparency. What rules was Beck working on? How might she “impose her former employer’s positions on the public?” It’s impossible to know because the Trump White House has blocked efforts to investigate the ex-lobbyists now writing laws.
In comments to Politico, Beck said she was “very involved” with the development of the new TSCA rules. Because of the Trump administration’s refusal to comply with standard ethics of reporting, it’s hard to know exactly how the ex-lobbyist is shaping the new toxic chemical policy.
That said, the “final” version of these rules has been made public, and some scientists and environmental groups worry that Pallone’s fears have come true.
What Is the ‘Final Framework’?
In the rules released last month, the EPA presented the new process for evaluating and regulating chemicals. Essentially, the rules break evaluation down into 3 stages.
- The “Inventory Notification” Rule requires chemical manufacturers and importers to notify the EPA of the chemicals it has used in the past 10 years. This rule is designed to figure out which chemicals are “active” or “inactive,” which will help the EPA prioritize which chemicals should be prioritized for further assessment.
- The “Prioritization” Rule outlines the process by which the EPA will screen chemicals. After a screening review with two 90-day public comment periods, the EPA will designate a chemical as a high-priority substance (in need of risk evaluation) or low-priority (risk evaluation not warranted at the time).
- The “Risk Evaluation” Rule determines whether or not a chemical substance presents an “unreasonable risk to health or the environment.”
If it is determined that a chemical substance presents an unreasonable risk to health or the environment, then the EPA moves into “Risk Management” stage in which the agency will “impose restrictions to eliminate the unreasonable risk.”
According to Administrator Pruitt, “The new process for evaluating existing chemicals outlined in these rules will increase public confidence in chemical safety without stifling innovation.”
Changes to Final Rules Move Away from Best Available Science
The rules finalized by the Trump EPA have telling changes from the rules proposed during the Obama era. Thus far, the new rules have scrapped the “pre-prioritization” phase during which the EPA would have time to investigate a chemical before beginning the “prioritization” phase, which must be completed within 1 year.
Scientists worry that 1 year is not nearly long enough to evaluate a chemical. Dr. Richard Dennison with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) worries that the quick timeline will hamstring agency efforts to truly assess a chemical substance.
Moreover, because chemical manufacturers have traditionally withheld information about the substances the produce, the rapid deadlines imposed by the new TSCA play right into those companies’ hands. Dennison explains:
“The chemical industry has always wanted it both ways on this one: It seeks to set an ever-higher bar EPA must meet to take action on a chemical, routinely challenging the science and information used. But it also fights any efforts to require companies to provide the information the agency needs to meet that bar.”
The “pre-prioritization” phase may not be what businesses want, but the American people ought to know that more than short-term testing has been done on a chemical. After all, exposure to some toxic substances, like asbestos, for example, may not trigger any symptoms for decades. This raises the question: Is the new TSCA protecting consumers or businesses?
Asbestos Among the First 10 Chemicals Designated High-Priority
At the signing ceremony for the Lautenberg Act, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to call out asbestos for the killer it is. He lamented that our country had not been able to uphold a ban on the “known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year.” For those who lost a family member or friend from mesothelioma, a lethal cancer caused exclusively by asbestos exposure, the new TSCA represented the possibility for an America without asbestos.
Along with the “final framework,” the EPA released “scoping documents” last month for first 10 chemicals designated high-priority. Asbestos was 1 of those chemicals. These documents outline how the EPA will conduct its evaluation of each chemical. This will help those who are concerned about each chemical to submit the most relevant information to help the agency make the best decision.
It’s important for mesothelioma victims, whose lives and families have been devastated by asbestos, to speak up. Big Business has already had their say: the newly released “scoping documents” admit this openly.
Industry Already Shaping Asbestos Policy
The chlor-alkali industry, responsible for 100 percent of asbestos consumption in the U.S. in 2016, has a stake in making sure asbestos stays legal. In the section describing the uses of asbestos in this industry, the document states that, “The information provided below is primarily based on information provided by either the chlor-alkali industry or American Chemistry Council (ACC) and is meant to represent typical practices.”
As the EPA decides how to regulate asbestos, it would appear that they are starting off with a version of “typical practices” that has been curated by the industry and its lobbyists, the ACC.
Who did Nancy Beck work for before she was in charge of regulating chemical companies in the U.S.?
Has the new TSCA been hijacked entirely? It’s too soon to say, but there are certainly troubling signs. Everyone will have to pay attention as this legislation continues to be finalized. Victims of asbestos and their families will have to work even harder to make sure that their voices are heard over the megaphone that President Trump and Co. have given to Big Business.