Health Care

Sorrell, advocates fight federal bill on toxic substances

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, center, leaves the U.S. Second District Court of Appeals in New York City. David Frederick, a private attorney hired by the state, follows in a red tie directly behind Sorrell. Photo by Andrew Stein

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, center, leaves the U.S. Second District Court of Appeals in New York City in January 2013. Photo by Andrew Stein

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell and eight other attorneys general from across the country are warning U.S. senators that a proposed toxic substances law would undermine state authority and put the health of constituents at risk.

At issue is the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which was introduced by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and David Vitter, R-La., days before Lautenberg died in June. The bill, which is ostensibly aimed at strengthening the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, is drawing heavy criticism from public health advocates in Vermont and other states.

“Of particular concern to us in Vermont is that the bill would pre-empt state action on toxic chemicals above and beyond the federal government,” said Lauren Hierl of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “Bills like our ban on toxic flame retardants and recent bills that ban BPA, lead, phthalates and mercury from certain consumer products, could eventually become unenforceable under the CSIA.”

This past legislative session, lawmakers unanimously voted to ban chlorinated flame retardants from children’s products and upholstered furniture in Vermont. If the proposed federal law is enacted, it’s likely that the state law would be rendered useless.

“We don’t want Congress to tie our hands unduly,” Sorrell said. “We’re suspicious that the chemical industry is in support of this draft legislation, and we’re not sure they have Vermont’s best interests at heart.”

Meanwhile, Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders have not taken a stance on the bill. Sanders sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which heard testimony on the bill last week.

On the day of the hearing, Sorrell and attorneys general from states such as California and Massachusetts submitted a letter to Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the majority members of the committee.

“The Chemical Safety Improvement Act … would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in a manner that we believe could, in its current form, seriously jeopardize public health and safety by preventing states from acting to address potential risks of toxic substances and from exercising state enforcement powers,” they wrote.

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The attorneys general argued there is a need to reform the current Toxic Substances Control Act, which leaves the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with little authority to regulate chemicals like asbestos. But, the attorney generals say, pre-empting states from enforcing more stringent chemical regulations is not the answer. To read the pre-emption language, click here.

“As currently written, S.1009 will not give us more protection,” senior counsel to the California attorney general Michael Troncoso told the committee in testimony last week. “To the contrary, it would cripple the states’ power to protect our environment and the health and welfare of our citizens.”

VPIRG’s Hierl and other advocates from organizations like Voices for Vermont Children, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Toxics Action Center are lobbying Sanders to fight for state authority over toxic chemicals. The advocates are also pushing for language to better protect vulnerable populations, like developing children and pregnant women, and streamlining the federal process for banning severely toxic substances.

Sanders and his staff were mum on the issue; Leahy spokesman David Carle issued a statement.

“The State of Vermont often chooses to set higher environmental and safety standards than the minimums required by the federal government, and Senator Leahy has long championed Vermont’s right to do that,” Carle said. “He has led many a fight against efforts to pre-empt such state laws … Senator Leahy will keep Vermont’s concerns in mind as the bill goes forward. It will be subject to changes in the committee and also on the Senate Floor, if the bill proceeds to a full debate.”

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Andrew Stein

About Andrew

Andrew Stein is the energy and health care reporter for VTDigger. He is a 2012 fellow at the First Amendment Institute and previously worked as a reporter and assistant online editor at the Addison County Independent, where he helped the publication win top state and New England awards for its website. Andrew is a former China Fulbright Research Fellow and a graduate of Kenyon College. As a Fulbright fellow, he researched the junction of Chinese economic, agricultural and environmental policymaking through an analysis of China’s modern tea industry. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has been awarded research grants from Middlebury College and the Freeman Foundation to investigate Chinese environmental policies. A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, his work has also appeared in publications such as the Math Association of America’s quarterly journal Math Horizons and Grist.org. When Andrew isn’t writing stories, he can likely be found playing Boggle with his wife, fly fishing or brewing beer.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewcstein

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