Detoxifying Congressional politics | Don Brunell

Thankfully, June 8 marked a milestone for Congress. Members came together and overwhelmingly approved a sweeping bill that regulates tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in everyday products, from household cleaners to clothing and furniture.

The legislation capped more than three years of arduous work by Republicans and Democrats and business and environmental leaders who systematically plowed through volumes of complex, confusing and sometime contradicting state and federal environmental laws and regulations dealing with toxic chemicals.

It updates the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act to require the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate new and existing chemicals against a new, risk-based safety standard that includes considerations for particularly vulnerable people such as children and pregnant women.

It also establishes written deadlines for the EPA to act and makes it tougher for the industry to claim chemical information is proprietary and therefore secret.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., one of the bill’s chief sponsors, told Associated Press correspondent Matthew Daly: “for the first time in 40 years, the United States of America will have a chemical safety program that works … and protects families from dangerous chemicals in their daily lives.”

“The new bill requires the EPA to set priorities for substances with the greatest likelihood of presenting a risk to the public and establishes a process that’s both effective and not unnecessarily onerous on companies so that beneficial products can get to market,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa said in an interview with Kent Hoover, national bureau chief of Biz Journals. “This will help both job creation and retention, and environmental concerns.”

Although the legislation has wide support, it has some detractors.

“At issue here are potential new hurdles, delays and restrictions on states’ ability to enact their own restrictions on toxics. Instead of being a national leader on controlling toxic chemicals, Washington will now have to fall in line behind the feds and wait for EPA to take the lead,” Rob Duff, chief of staff on environmental issues for Gov. Jay Inslee (D) told the Seattle Times in May.

However, the 181-page bill specifies that any state law or rule in place before April 22 would not be pre-empted by federal law.

Importantly, the national legislation sets new safety standards for asbestos and other dangerous chemicals, including formaldehyde, styrene and Bisphenol A, better known as BPA, that have gone largely unregulated for decades.

While in Washington State, lawmakers and interest groups have their share of differences and disagreements, they have a history of working together on key sensitive environmental issues.

In the early 1980s, business, environmental and legislative leaders came together to streamline our State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The changes, pushed by Gov. John Spellman (R), enabled SEPA applicants to focus on an environmental checklist of significant concerns for projects.

In 1999, the landmark Forest and Fish Law brought together tribal, environmental, business and government leaders. Gov. Gary Locke (D) signed the bipartisan bill aimed at protecting water quality for fish, wildlife and people while allowing logging, tree planting and forest management on private forestlands.

In 2002, business, environmental, municipal and state leaders came together to hammer out rules governing activities along our state’s shorelines. Then Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) helped mediate an out-of-court settlement of conflicting litigation. Locke pushed the agreement through the legislature with bipartisan support.

The bottom line is our system will work, if people are willing to set aside difference and come together for the common good. While it is a long and bumpy road, in the end, we are all better served by laws which are clear, logical and function efficiently.

Warning: Patience, persistence and understanding are required.