This is written by Richard Denison, Ph.D:
As we approach the third anniversary of the historic passage of bipartisan legislation to overhaul our nation’s broken chemical safety system, we’re hearing that political appointees at the agency are gearing up to celebrate their “successes” in implementing the law.
Even more disturbing than its individual actions are the methodical steps the Trump EPA is taking to dismantle decades of progress in our country’s chemicals policies.
While the chemical industry may well have things to celebrate, it’s simply not the case for the rest of us: Comments from former top EPA officials, members of Congress, state and local governments, labor groups, firefighters, water utilities, public health groups, and a broad range of environmental groups make crystal clear that there’s nothing warranting celebration. EPA’s actions are threatening the health of American families.
But as I reflect on how implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has gone off the rails under the Trump EPA, even more disturbing than its individual actions are the methodical steps it is taking to dismantle decades of progress in our country’s chemicals policies. In this post, I’ll briefly highlight five such policies and how this EPA is undermining them:
- Pollution prevention
- Inherent safety and hazard reduction
- Protection of vulnerable subpopulations and environmental justice
- Holistic, real-world risk assessment
- Public right to know
Pollution prevention vs. end-of-pipe pollution control
Several decades ago, the nation recognized the limitations of approaches that seek to manage chemical exposure through pollution controls and limits on releases. In passing the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, Congress embraced policies and practices that reduce hazardous chemicals at the source as preferable to those that seek to manage their release:
The Congress hereby declares it to be the national policy of the United States that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source whenever feasible; pollution that cannot be prevented should be recycled in an environmentally safe manner, whenever feasible; pollution that cannot be prevented or recycled should be treated in an environmentally safe manner whenever feasible; and disposal or other release into the environment should be employed only as a last resort and should be conducted in an environmentally safe manner.
TSCA empowers EPA to stop pollution at its source, and there was renewed hope when TSCA was reformed in 2016 that it would be implemented in a manner that reduced the production and use of toxic chemicals, rather than continue to try to manage them through end-of-the-pipe controls.
Sadly, the Trump EPA has sought to reverse progress in its implementation of TSCA. It is intent on ignoring exposures that ensue from environmental releases of chemicals to air, water and land, excluding them entirely from its risk evaluations based merely on the possibility that they could be addressed through a pollution control law that EPA administers. Even where a chemical is actually regulated under another law, the allowed releases still contribute to the chemical’s overall risk, which EPA is required to evaluate under TSCA. (See here and here.)
In the wake of the Trump EPA’s retreat from its proposed comprehensive ban of methylene chloride-based paint strippers that would have protected workers as well as consumers, EPA’s actions as well as its rhetoric has shifted to embrace “tools” other than bans. Even for high-risk uses of highly toxic chemicals, EPA is opting to apply regulatory band-aids that allow the industry to continue to make and use the chemicals in ways that continue to expose people and the environment. The head of the EPA toxics office recently stated:
There might be lots of ways to mitigate risk or manage risk. This could involve notifications, process controls, volume management or labeling. I think there’s this sense on the street that EPA is looking at these chemistries with the intent that we’re going to ban them all at the end of the day. I don’t think that will be the result …