Environmental regulator tells Congress: U.S. efforts to regulate toxics are a failure

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It’s been more than 30 years since Congress passed a law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. It hasn’t controlled many toxics, though. And today a high-ranking environmental regulator from the Pacific Northwest told members of Congress that the nation’s efforts to keep people safe from harmful chemicals just aren’t cutting it.

Ted Sturdevant, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, rattled off a list of steps taken to control toxics in his state, including banning the flame retardant decaBDE and work to rein in mercury and lead. In fact, Washington was the first state to come up with multi-year plan to phase out so-called “persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic” chemicals, or PBTs, he told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

But Sturdevant’s testimony at the Congressional hearing quickly jumps to this point:

The truth is that our approach to protecting people and our environment from toxic chemicals is a failure. It’s a failure at the state level, and it’s a failure at the national level. We are failing to prevent avoidable harm to our children, we are failing to protect the food chain that sustains us, we are failing to save countless millions of taxpayer dollars that are wasted on health care costs and environmental cleanup, and we are failing to exercise common sense.

Wow. Strong words. He went on to describe what he thinks a common-sense system of regulations would entail:

• Look carefully at a chemical’s potential to harm before it is used in commerce.

• The government should be able to ban a chemical causing an “urgent and unacceptable” risk.

• If we know a substance harms people or the environment, and there is a safe or less-harmful substance available that does the job, stop using the dangerous substance.

Now, those might seem like common-sense sideboards, but Sturdevant pointed out:

None of these principles – precaution, targeted bans when needed, or encouraging the use of safer alternatives – describes current policy. Instead, the burden of proof is on (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to prove a chemical unsafe, without the proper tools or data to do that job. And even in instances where safer alternatives exist for a chemical for which there is clear cause for concern, there is no effective mechanism to require or encourage switching to the safer alternative.

He was one of six witnesses as the subcommittee – having heard at previous sessions that pretty everyone thinks TSCA needs to be updated – started to consider exactly how that might happen.

Now, I realize this is only a subcommittee hearing, and therefore far from becoming a change in the law. But still, why can’t I find even a single news story on this hearing on Google News at this late hour? There are a few blog posts by environmental groups, but that’s about it. Sigh. I guess there were too many Oscar stories to write today – 1,704, in fact, according to the latest Google News count.

-- Robert McClure