Ecology chief: New pollution undoing cleanup
The state of Washington is seeking federal help to get rid of toxic chemicals in Tacoma's Commencement Bay, which is still polluted after a massive $100 million cleanup effort.
WASHINGTON — The state of Washington is seeking federal help to get rid of toxic chemicals in Tacoma's Commencement Bay, which is still polluted after a massive, $100 million cleanup effort.
The contaminants are called phthalates, used in piping, packaging, soft plastic toys and many other products.
"I am concerned about what phthalates might mean in the food chain in Puget Sound, and for the people that harvest its food — but I don't know what to do about it," Ted Sturdevant, the director of the Washington state Department of Ecology, told a Senate panel last week.
"We don't have any means of stopping or reducing this pollution stream, or protecting our investment in the bay."
Sturdevant wants Congress to help by passing the Safe Chemicals Act, which would force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify and restrict the "worst of the worst" chemicals. They are defined as chemicals that are persistent and build up in the food chain, such as lead, mercury and flame retardants.
States are also pushing Congress to provide more grant money to reduce exposure to hazardous chemicals.
"We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't ask for money," Sturdevant said in an interview.
The bill would overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which critics say has done little to protect the public. Among other things, it would require companies to provide basic health and safety information for all chemicals as a condition for selling them.
Companies that refused to disclose the information would not be allowed to sell those products.
Sturdevant said the pollution in Commencement Bay "is exactly the kind of problem that should be addressed by TSCA, but is not." He told senators that state environmental agencies need "a federal system that works" to help them deal with new sources of pollution.
"When those chemicals come from a pipe or a smokestack, we have the tools and the know-how to do our job," Sturdevant said. "But when they come from ubiquitous products like the plastic casing of a television or the foam in our furniture, we haven't had the tools or the know-how to do our job."
Safe or dangerous?
In the case of phthalates, Sturdevant said, there is growing concern about their safety at the same time that the chemical industry is defending their use.
"Is this stuff safe or not?" he asked. "Without a clear answer from an effective federal agency, then we are left to figure that on our own."
Sturdevant said a stronger federal role is needed because it's difficult and cumbersome for states to try to act alone in stopping chemical products from crossing their borders. Under the current system, he said, there's "a patchwork of chemical regulations" that vary from state to state.
Proponents of the new law say the 35-year-old TSCA "grandfathered" 62,000 chemicals that were in use at the time, never requiring the EPA to review their safety. And they say the law is so flawed that it does not require chemical companies to show that their new products are safe before selling them.
The new legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, would shift the burden of proof to chemical companies, forcing them to demonstrate the safety of industrial chemicals before putting them on the market.
"The shocking truth is that the current law does not require tests to ensure chemicals used in everyday household products are safe," Lautenberg said when he introduced the bill earlier this year. He said he wanted to "breathe new life into a long-dead statute by empowering EPA to separate the chemicals that help from the chemicals that hurt."
At last week's hearing, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who heads the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said that improvements in the law are needed to protect infants, children and pregnant women, who are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals.
She said the current law is so weak that the EPA has not even been able to completely ban cancer-causing asbestos, after the courts ruled in 1991 that the federal government had not proved that it posed an "unreasonable risk" to public health.
Some are worried that Congress might go too far.
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top-ranked Republican on the Senate's environment committee, said that any changes to the law should be done "the right way, without harming American innovation or shipping jobs overseas."
"It is vital, given an unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent and numerous costly new regulations coming from this administration, that we make sure any TSCA reforms help to not only protect human health, but jobs and the economy," he said.
And Cal Dooley, president and chief executive officer of the American Chemistry Council, called the proposal "an ill-conceived regulatory system" and said it had "fundamental flaws."
As an example, he said, one proposal would require that chemical companies assure "reasonable certainty of no harm ... from aggregate exposure" of chemicals, a standard that he said would be virtually impossible to meet. He warned that it could result in "regulatory paralysis" for the chemical industry.
Dooley said chemical companies also would be forced to share confidential data with the public, compromising their private business information.
In Tacoma, Sturdevant said the results of cleanup efforts at Commencement Bay initially looked promising.
"Last year, we finally started seeing improved sediment and fish health in the bay," he told the committee.
Now, he said, phthalates are pouring into the bay in polluted stormwater runoff, and they settle on top of the clean sediments.
Sturdevant said the phthalates already have been linked with developmental and reproductive problems in wildlife and lab animals.
"Some research suggests that these substances are adversely affecting human health in similar ways," he said.
Despite industry concerns, Sturdevant said it should be possible to create a new regulatory system where the EPA, the states and chemical companies share information about the safety of chemicals without compromising trade secrets.
"The current system doesn't work for anyone," he said. "I shouldn't have to spend my resources on Washington-specific efforts that are better made at the national level. Citizens expect to be protected from harmful toxic exposures that could be avoided."
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