TSCA Reform: The Battle Continues

Posted on February 7, 2013 by Lynn L. Bergeson

For Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) aficionados, a new federal legislative session holds the promise of long overdue legislative reform.  Among the oldest environmental laws, it is also the most neglected.  While hope springs eternal, the odds are against reform any time soon.  A deeply divided Congress makes any environmental measure contentious.  Pile on other Congressional priorities, including immigration reform, gun safety, and climate change, and we have the makings of more Congressional inaction and gridlock.

It is against this backdrop that we await introduction of Senator David Vitter’s (R-LA) TSCA reform bill, expected this month.  As the new ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Vitter’s much-awaited bill marks the first Republican alternative to Senator Frank Lautenberg’s (D-NJ) long-standing TSCA reform measure, the Safe Chemicals Act.

Among many contentious issues is the TSCA safety standard.  Senator Lautenberg’s bill contains a “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard to replace the current “unreasonable risk” standard.  This language is found in the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act and defines the applicable standard for pesticide exposures in food.  A key area of controversy is whether such a standard for food safety is appropriate for chemical exposures, or otherwise represents a “zero risk” standard that likely would inspire epic regulatory costs for questionable improvements in true risk reduction.  In the void left by Congressional inaction, state measures are gaining ground.  The California Safer Consumer Products Regulations are expected to be issued in final form sometime this year.  This game-changing approach to assessing the safety of chemicals in consumer products by requiring chemical “alternative” assessments may well become the default safety standard in the absence of federal legislation.

2013 will be a watershed year for domestic chemical management initiatives.  Even if federal inaction continues, a California initiative, like so many others in the past, may prevail and take domestic chemical product safety to places and levels Congress declines to go.