Legislators hope to prod Congress into stronger action on toxins

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A lawmaker has proposed a resolution requesting that Congress reform federal toxin laws and preserve states' ability to write their own toxin regulations.

Advocates say the move is needed to prevent incidents like the contamination of well water in some southwestern Vermont communities by perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.

Manufacturers say they, too, want federal toxin laws revamped, but as a way to establish a uniform regulatory environment across the country.

"What we want to see is that the companies who are manufacturing and putting into communities new chemicals be required to test them and be able to unequivocally state they won't hurt the environment or people," said David Deen, D-Westminster, chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.

Every member of Deen's committee has co-sponsored the resolution, as has the entire Bennington delegation.

The bill urges Congress to strengthen the law under which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates toxic chemicals, called the Toxic Substances Control Act. Congress is considering two pieces of legislation to revise that law, but Deen's resolution asks federal lawmakers to go beyond what either of those proposes.

What Deen hopes to see isn't realistic, said the vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, William Driscoll.

The toxicity of a chemical matters less than the way in which it's used, Driscoll said. A cellphone presents little danger to its users, but toxins exist in the phone that would pose a threat if it were lit on fire, he said. All manner of harmful chemicals benefit people when used properly, Driscoll said.

Moreover, strong incentives motivate manufacturers to avoid releasing harmful products, he said.

"The idea that manufacturers want to go out and put out dangerous products — there are requirements, and there are practices, for logical reasons, for manufacturers to work to ensure their products and the ingredients to their products aren't going to harm customers," Driscoll said.

But incidents like the contamination of wells in North Bennington and a public water system in Pownal prove that reform is needed, said Vermont Conservation Voters political director Lauren Hierl.

The federal government doesn't regulate chemicals such as PFOA, Hierl said. Its release has been traced to the former Chemfab factory in North Bennington.

Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, and since then the EPA has used its authority to regulate only five substances. The agency should test chemicals before allowing their release into the environment, Hierl said, but instead the agency wouldn't test even the small number that it has until after they were already known to be dangerous.

And a court case in the 1990s set a precedent that prevents the EPA from regulating even substances whose harms are well-established, Hierl said. The judge in that case found that the economic harms associated with regulation of asbestos outweighed the carcinogenic mineral's health harms, she said.

In the absence of federal regulation, Deen said, states must act.

"If they can't get it together to enact meaningful reform, then I'm building an agenda to start taking action here in Vermont next year," he said. "It really should be a federal responsibility, but short of a federal responsibility I think Vermonters have a right to protect themselves."

This is precisely the approach manufacturers hope to prevent, Driscoll said.

Manufacturing is made more costly when states enact their own toxic substance controls, he said. Manufacturers are pushing to reform the federal Toxic Substances Control Act as a way to make regulations uniform across all the states, and in the process to prevent states from enacting their own regulations, he said.

"We would be concerned about a final TSCA bill that would allow states to set their own regulatory requirements," Driscoll said.

Both bills before Congress contain provisions that would prohibit states from establishing new regulations for chemicals, Hierl said.

Deen said that's unacceptable. "They haven't done squat since 1976, we're being overrun, and now they want to pre-empt us?" he said of Congress.

Both congressional bills have been in committees for months, but signs indicate lawmakers are likely to reach a "milestone within weeks," said Andy Igrejas, national campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy coalition.

Vermont's Sen. Patrick Leahy is asking his colleagues to help strengthen the bills' language, Deen said. Deen said he's optimistic that Leahy's stature in Congress, combined with the resolution he's put before the Legislature, will have an effect.

"If (Leahy) doesn't hit a responsive chord, I hope he makes that known prior to Election Day in November, and people can evaluate what their legislators did or did not do to protect them from toxic chemicals," Deen said.


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