But fixing it has proven difficult. The furthest any reform bill got was last session, when legislation from late Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey — the Safe Chemicals Act — cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 2012. The measure, however, never got a vote on the Senate floor.
Hope was renewed last spring thanks to an unprecedented bipartisan deal between the liberal stalwart Lautenberg and conservative Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. The pair's Chemical Safety Improvement Act wasn't perfect to either side, but the opportunity appeared to be. And across Capitol Hill, the House was holding a series of educational hearings on the problems with TSCA, with high hopes for a bipartisan agreement in that chamber.
Flash forward to now: The Senate bill is on hold while staff retool the language to please green groups and some Democrats who say the bill would preempt state laws, doesn't protect vulnerable populations, and doesn't give EPA enough strict authority. And though sponsors say the measure is gathering momentum, no new draft has publicly emerged since a hearing on the bill in July.
A House draft bill is moving, but appears to have fallen victim to the traditional left-right squabbling that could cast a pall on its bipartisan hopes. A hearing Tuesday before Energy and Commerce's Environment and Economy Subcommittee considered Chairman John Shimkus's recently revised discussion draft for a reform bill, but also quickly slipped into a heated argument about who was being ignored in the bill-writing process.
Typical bickering in which Democrats said they were being pushed out of the process — despite Republican Shimkus's plea to not "go through the process of junior-high 'he said, she said' " — is only part of the problem. It may be that the underlying text of TSCA is so topsy-turvy that any rehab job creates problems.
The chemical industry, while it broadly supports TSCA reform, has naturally balked at proposals that would require too much regulation of their product or the disclosure of confidential information they say would pose a risk to trade secrets. And green groups have pushed hard to maintain tougher state laws in states like California or Vermont that do more than EPA, while Republicans and industry have warned about a potential patchwork of rules.
Meanwhile, stakeholders seem to be drawing different conclusions from the same language. Shimkus, for example, says the updated draft will protect some state laws, a must-have for health advocates. But green groups and Democrats say that aspect of the bill would, in fact, cut so deeply as to affect laws related to disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking formulas.
And the bill removes TSCA's original language requiring that EPA choose the "least burdensome" regulation, which environmentalists have said prevented the agency from regulating asbestos, but nobody can seem to agree on whether new requirements would leave EPA in the same position again.