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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The normally divided Congress recently got together to take on a major overhaul of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, giving the Environmental Protection Agency broad new authority to regulate chemicals in millions of products American use every day.

“When Americans go to the grocery store and hardware store, they assume products they buy have been tested and are safe; they aren’t,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, one of the bill’s chief authors, said in a press call. “For the first time in 40 years, we will have a working chemical safety law.”

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, as the update is called, would be the biggest environmental law to pass Congress in two decades. It was approved by the House 403-12 in May, and is currently in the hands of the U.S. Senate—where it hit an unexpected snag: Despite the broad bipartisan support for the bill, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is blocking a vote, saying he wants time to learn about the bill. He also says that businesses are always complaining to him that they’re “regulated to death” and this bill “takes the power away from the states and creates a new federal regulatory regime.”

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—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.

If the EPA finds that a chemical poses a risk to any group of people, it must “impose restrictions sufficient to ameliorate the risk,” says Richard Denison, lead senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, who has long worked on the bill.

The bill was shepherded through Congress by Udall and Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana. The unlikely duo came together because the industry, public health groups and environmental groups all agreed the Toxic Substances Control Act was broken. Over 40 years, the EPA managed to use the law to test only a few hundred of the tens of thousands of chemicals in circulation. The prime example of the law’s weakness came when the EPA tried to use it to restrict asbestos. However, a court overturned the ban in 1991, eviscerating the agency’s power to regulate existing chemicals.

In the vacuum, some states, including California, Oregon and Washington, started to regulate toxic chemicals. These state efforts helped push the industry to the table to negotiate a new bill.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, initially fought against the bill, because it would have restrained states’ efforts to regulate toxic chemicals. More recently, she used her influence to narrow those restrictions. “I didn’t go on this bill; I changed it,” Boxer said at a recent press conference. “I wish I had the option to write the bill on my own. Believe me, it would have been much stronger. But I know if we want to make progress, we need to reach across the aisle.”

Under the final bill, state chemical regulations already on the books will remain in effect. Going forward, state action will be pre-empted while the EPA reviews a chemical. Once the EPA acts, its decision on whether a chemical is safe or needs to be restricted will trump any state action. States can request waivers or step in if the EPA takes more than 3 1/2 years to complete its evaluation.

States that had pushed hard for fewer restrictions on their authority to regulate chemicals seemed ready to adapt to the new bill and eager for a stronger federal regulator. Ken Zarker, who manages the Pollution Prevention and Regulatory Assistance Section of Washington State’s Department of Ecology, called the bill “workable,” even though his state and others were disappointed that it will restrict states’ regulatory ability. Washington’s Legislature earlier this year banned several flame retardants in furniture and children’s products. Zarker’s agency was tasked with studying five additional chemicals and reporting back to the Legislature on whether they, too, should be banned. Under the new toxics law, if the federal government decides to review these same chemicals, that could hamper speedier action by the state.

“The feds move too slow; it’s like trying to fight with one arm tied behind your back,” says Zarker.

Still, Zarker says only a few states have the resources to review toxic chemicals. So, having a stronger federal cop on the beat, as provided by this bill, should be good for everybody.

“At least it sets up a system; we currently don’t have one,” Zarker says. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”

But some health experts warn that although the measure is stronger than current law, it will not provide what so many people want—timely, dependable information about the safety of the chemicals they and their children encounter every day. The bill requires the EPA to name the first 10 chemicals it will evaluate within six months, and within 3 1/2 years be conducting risk evaluations of at least 20 high-priority chemicals. The bill sets a three-year deadline for the EPA to complete risk assessments of chemicals after designating them as high risk. The agency then would have two years to regulate.

The “glacial pace” of chemical reviews envisioned by the bill and the inadequate funding means that the EPA will be unable to provide consumers with the “proactive prevention that so many consumers are seeking,” said Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University.

“How can that be sufficient when there are thousands of highly produced chemicals without testing data?” Trasande wrote previously in a blog post. In his post and in his earlier article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he outlined concerns that the new bill will fail to give the government adequate tools to protect vulnerable populations from the risks posed by synthetic chemicals. “A large—and growingliterature demonstrates that synthetic chemicals can disrupt the developing brains of children,” he writes.

Other public health experts are concerned about the way the EPA currently evaluates whether chemicals pose health risks. “Right now, EPA’s risk assessment process is inadequate to fully characterize the risk for effects other than cancer. That’s a huge problem,” said Tracey Woodruff, who directs the program on reproductive health and the environment at the University of California, San Francisco. “That could allow a lot of chemicals to stay on the marketplace that might pose a public health risk.”

Of ourse, how the EPA implements the new law and how much funding the agency gets to do the work will have a huge impact on whether it will live up to its sponsors’ high hopes.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Since 1872, mining interests have made billions of dollars by removing and selling valuable minerals from our public lands without having to pay a cent to the American taxpayer. This is one of the biggest budget loopholes of the modern economy, and it needs to change—especially now—as Congress tries to address the deficit and balance budgets.

Blame this bizarre omission of royalties on the 1872 Mining Law, which encouraged Westward expansion by allowing prospectors to stake claims on public lands and freely remove “hardrock” minerals like gold, silver, copper and uranium. This saloon-era handout—established more than 140 years ago—continues unchanged to this day. Mining companies still receive these precious metals and minerals for free.

Today, some of the world’s biggest companies make a mint by mining our metals, selling them to the highest bidder, keeping all the profits and often sticking taxpayers with a costly cleanup bill. We’re left with a legacy of abandoned and contaminated mines on public lands that leak into streams and aquifers—lands that should be managed for the benefit of the American people.

Even as these giveaways continue, funding for national parks and other public facilities keep getting tighter. Employees’ hours are being reduced; cleanup crews are scarce; and trails are going untended and falling into ruin. Even a small royalty could rejuvenate our public-lands system, help clean up abandoned mines and mine waste, and put people back to work. Why should companies get a free ride while the national budget is slashed and parks close for lack of funds? With prices for gold, silver and other minerals at near-record highs, requiring companies to pay a royalty for public resources is simply good policy.

In 2011, we requested a Government Accountability Office investigation of this issue. The results, published this past November, were striking: The GAO found that we have no estimate at all of the value of the hardrock resources extracted from federal property. Not only are we giving public resources away for free; we don’t even know what’s being taken or the value of what we’re giving away.

According to a 2012 Bureau of Land Management report, in California alone, there are 20,200 mining claims, 215,000 ounces of gold, and 35,000 ounces of silver produced annually on BLM land.

The Department of the Interior, using estimates and partial information, put a ballpark figure of $6.4 billion on the value of hardrock minerals extracted from federal land in 2011. If taxpayers received an 8 percent royalty on $6.4 billion, that would mean more than $500 million a year we could put back into managing our public lands and reducing our national debt.

For decades, Congress has tried to rally sufficient support for hardrock mining law reform. Disputes about what royalty rate to charge, how to calculate company profits, and what benefits would go to local mining communities have managed to stall decades of reform efforts. While full reform has not been successful so far, progress has been made.

In the 1990s, both the House and Senate implemented a moratorium on the patenting of federal land for hardrock mineral development. As recently as 2008, the House passed a measure that would have protected special landscapes and charged a royalty of up to 8 percent. As co-sponsors of this legislation, we were frustrated to see the bill die in the Senate.

Now more than ever, the case for reform is clear, and we appreciate the support we’ve received from President Obama’s administration. As our nation works to address the deficit in the months ahead, we can no longer allow federal giveaways of our natural resources to continue without any compensation to the taxpayers who own those resources. The president proposed hardrock mining reform measures in each of his past two budgets, and we hope to see this repeated in his fiscal year 2014 request due this month.

But the only way mining reform will happen is if the public becomes aware of its importance. Nothing in Congress happens in a vacuum. That’s why we’re highlighting this issue now, before budget negotiations get too intense.

In 1872, Congress made national expansion the country’s top priority, and we spent the next century growing westward. That phase of American history ended a long time ago, but our mining law never caught up to the realities of today. It is long overdue for Congress and the administration to act––to finally demand, and get, a fair price for the public’s hardrock minerals.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations; Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico sits on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Published in Community Voices