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Welch On His Support For Bill Overhauling EPA's Toxic Chemical Regulation

Taylor Dobbs
VPR file
Congressman Peter Welch, shown here in 2015, says the EPA's current system of reviewing dangerous chemicals is "outdated" and poses a health and safety risk for many people.

The U.S. House has given its strong bi-partisan support to legislation that overhauls a 40-year-old law that regulates toxic chemicals. The proposal will bring more than 64,000 chemicals under the review of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Congressman Peter Welch voted for the bill because he says the EPA's current system of reviewing dangerous chemicals is "outdated" and poses a health and safety risk for many people.

Back in 1976, Congress passed what is known as the Toxic Substances Control Act. During the past 40 years, the EPA has banned or restricted the use of five of the roughly 85,000 chemicals that are currently in use.

Under the old law, the EPA was not allowed to weigh health and safety concerns in approving a chemical. Instead, it could focus only on the economic cost-benefit analysis of the product.

The new bill calls on the EPA to conduct a thorough health review of the tens of thousands of chemicals that are still in use, and many of these chemicals can be found in household products.

Congressman Peter Welch says the legislation is a big improvement over the current law.

"When it comes to regulating chemicals, the EPA has almost no authority, and it's like the Wild West – very dangerous for health and safety,” Welch says. “The EPA cannot even regulate asbestos under current law. So this legislation is long overdue and it does some very significant positive things." 

Welch notes that it will take the EPA some time to work through the backlog of chemicals, but he says all new chemicals will have to pass the health test before they're released in the marketplace.

“It will be on the basis of, 'Is this a health threat or not,’ as opposed to a cost-benefit analysis. And when it comes to protecting public health, health has to be the factor,” Welch says. “I mean, if something is going to cause health concerns, health problems, that shouldn't be out on the marketplace."

Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says shifting to a health analysis of these chemicals is a positive change.

“Now, this will be still not an easy standard to prove, of course, and it shouldn't be,” Burns says. “But it is a standard that makes sense if the chemical is too dangerous to be included in products, and it shouldn't be used in commerce, it shouldn't be put into products, it shouldn't be purchased by unsuspecting consumers." 

The legislation also includes a provision that prohibits individual states from enacting laws that impose tougher health standards than the EPA. Burns doesn't like this preemption approach.

"The downside, and it is a serious one, is that it does discourage states, states like Vermont, from moving forward to regulate potentially dangerous chemicals in their own states,” Burns says. “And those laws, those protections have been very important for the general public."

Welch says he also has concerns about the preemption provision, but he says states will have up to a year to enact tougher regulations from the time that the EPA formally announces that it's started it own review process of a chemical. Welch says he's been assured by the EPA that Vermont could retain its more stringent regulation of PFOA, a chemical that has contaminated groundwater in Bennington County.

“As long as Vermont is vigilant and acts in a prompt way, and I'm confident we will … then Vermont will be able to take what action the governor and the General Assembly believe is essential to protect health and safety of Vermonters,” Welch says.

The measure now goes to the Senate for its consideration. Backers of the bill are confident that it will win strong support in the Senate and then will be signed into law by President Obama.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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