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New Federal Bill Could Mean Vermont Loses Some Power To Regulate Chemicals

Kathleen Masterson
Vermont's Attorney General William Sorrell welcomes his colleagues from around the country to this year's meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, which is being held in Burlington June 21-23.

Vermont’s Attorney General Bill Sorrell said Tuesday that he has some concerns that new federal legislation will limit states’ rights to regulate chemicals within their borders.

Congress recently passed legislation to reform the 40-year-old Toxic Substance Control Act, which is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama Wednesday.

The bill gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to order companies to test chemicals — a power it largely didn’t have previously.  

But it also says that once the EPA has elected to review a chemical, at that point states no longer have the right to regulate the chemical, unless they are granted a waiver.

“States traditionally have had very real roles in even going beyond federal standards for health and safety, and environmental protection,” says Sorrell. “And we really don’t want, and didn’t want, to be largely preempted from being able to have stricter state standards.”

States petition Congress for more power

Sorrell is one of 12 states attorneys general who penned a letter of concern to the Congressional committee back in January requesting that it rework the bill to ensure that states would not be prohibited from regulating chemicals within their borders. Specifically, the attorneys general requested they be allowed to govern a chemical until the EPA finalizes its ruling on said chemical.

Maine’s Attorney General Janet Mills also signed the letter. She says her state is particularly concerned about the waivers, and how stringent the process to obtain one will be. 

“We don’t know who is going to be in charge of the EPA next year… and we want to preserve our ability to have cops on the beat locally, preserving our right to enforce state laws and regulations, preserving the right of the state agencies to keep reviewing chemicals,” says Mills.

She says states shouldn’t “have to beg for a waiver” simply because the EPA has taken up a review of a chemical. The EPA assessment could take up to three years, during which time the chemical would be largely unregulated.

“It’s really important for our states that have been on the forefront of this issue to retain our ability to enforce our own requirements, to the extent they are more stringent than the federal government’s," Mills says.

In the hands of the EPA

Sorrell says the version of the bill that passed actually “raises the bar a little” for states to be able to get waivers, which could make it harder for states to create and enforce local rules.

“That’s another situation we wish wasn’t in bill the way it is, but it is. And we’ll have to see how strenuously the EPA enforces their right to grant those waivers,” says Sorrell.

Sorrell says that Congress did, however, amend the bill to address other state concerns. For example states can continue to enforce existing regulations on chemicals, some of which may be stricter than EPA standards.

Sorrell says he expects Vermont’s more strict standard for the chemical PFOA will also be upheld. Vermont considers levels below 20 parts per trillion acceptable in drinking water; the EPA standard is set at 70 parts per trillion.   

Sorrell says the bill was updated to respond to states’ requests for more control, and many of the states’ demands were met: “This is more than half a loaf, but it’s not a full loaf.”

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative. Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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