Federalism and Reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act

Photo: Joey Gannon.

Photo: Joey Gannon.

Last month, in a bit of symbolic bipartisanship, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act, making the bison America's national mammal.  Last week Congress passed a significantly more ambitious (if less charismatic) legislative initiative: major reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.  The TSCA tasks the federal Environmental Protection Agency with regulating chemicals that pose unreasonable risks to human health or the environment.  It is an admirable statute, but the TSCA hasn't stood up to close scrutiny in recent years.  For one thing, it hasn't been meaningfully updated since 1976.  It requires little from manufacturers in terms of data disclosures or modern technology adoption, and the EPA's regulatory powers are relatively weak.

As a result, regulation of toxic substances has taken place predominantly at the state level, if at all.  States like California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Connecticut have passed comprehensive regulatory programs to address toxic chemicals.  Many of these state programs have been successful, and toxic chemicals regulation is a great example of state leadership filling a federal government void when it comes to environmental governance (climate change is another).  But the state-led approach has its critics, too.  For every state that has passed aggressive chemicals regulation programs, there is another state that has taken little or no action, leaving many populations vulnerable (minority, low-income, elderly, and infant populations bear the highest risk from exposure).  Chemical manufacturers themselves have called for reform as well, preferring a single, uniform regulatory program on the federal level to the patchwork of state programs that must presently be navigated.

Congress responded by passing the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, possibly the most sweeping environmental legislation enacted in years:

The bill allows the EPA to evaluate the safety of tens of thousands of older chemicals that were impossible to regulate under existing law and strengthens the agency’s hand in reviewing new chemicals. It requires the agency to consider only safety and health – and not costs – when deciding whether a chemical presents “unreasonable risk.” It charges companies up to $25 million to pay for the reviews, and provides new protections for vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

The bill passed with bipartisan support.  If there was any debate at all, it centered around the bill's preemption of state regulations.  Typically federal law trumpts conflicting state laws, unless Congress otherwise specifies.  Here, some states wanted to maintain their authority to regulate toxic chemicals.  Those states were, unsurprisingly, many of the states with strong existing regulations.  Representatives from California and Washington, for example, expressed concern that weak federal regulations might trump their stronger state regulations.  Or, from a more procedural point of view, if the federal government wants to regulate a new chemical, their lengthy regulatory review process would preclude a more rapid state response.  

All things considered, though, TSCA reform is a win.  A cynical EPA could hamper stronger state regulation in the future, but the more immediate outcome is that a national regulatory program for toxic chemicals is now more firmly in place.