Washington — Sen. Barbara Boxer seized control of a major overhaul of chemical safety law Wednesday, putting Republicans and moderate Democrats on the defensive and demanding tougher regulation of thousands of industrial chemicals blamed for rising rates of cancer, asthma, early puberty and other maladies.
The California Democrat rejected a deal brokered by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who died in June, with ranking committee Republican David Vitter of Louisiana, whose state is home to more than 100 chemical plants.
The two sought to reform a 1976 law that continues, largely unbeknownst to the public, to allow tens of thousands of chemicals used in everyday products to escape scrutiny for their effects on human health and the environment.
The legislation has the potential to become the most significant environmental law in a generation, posing a critical test of Boxer’s leadership. The liberal Boxer, who wrote a novel whose heroine tangled with chemical companies, must find a way to draw support from Republicans and the chemical industry or risk repeating almost a decade of fruitless efforts to muscle through legislation the industry opposed.
Boxer said she will not permit legislation that usurps the ability of California and other states to regulate chemicals. She also demanded special protections for pregnant women, children and workers, deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to act, and protection of the right to sue. “If we don’t fix these problems, we’re not going to have a bill,” she said.
Lautenberg and Boxer led failed efforts to reform the law until spring, when Lautenberg, seeking a breakthrough at age 89, brokered a deal with Vitter that alarmed California officials and many public health and environmental activists.
The deal drew backing from moderate Democrats, especially from smaller states that lack the capacity of California and New York to regulate chemicals on their own in the four-decade void left by federal inaction.
Boxer, who was blindsided by the backroom negotiations, called Wednesday’s hearing to showcase opposition to the Lautenberg deal from state attorneys general and activist groups, applying pressure on the industry and Republicans to move her way.
The industry, facing a tide of new rules by states, big retailers and foreign governments banning various chemicals in consumer products, has abandoned the old regime and now wants federal regulation.
Linda Fisher, chief sustainability officer for DuPont, told the committee the industry faces state-by-state and chemical-by-chemical rules that “create tremendous uncertainty for businesses.” She said afterward that she saw significant commonality on both sides and is “very optimistic” that a new deal could be reached.
The conservative Vitter struck a compromising tone, repeatedly referencing his closeness to the liberal Lautenberg. He said he never intended to neuter California laws and is open to protecting pregnant women and children from chemical exposure.