CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lawmakers in Washington have reached agreement on a potential compromise to reform the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is being credited with helping to forge the bipartisan deal.
The bill would, for the first time, require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. Currently, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act allows the vast majority of chemicals to remain on the market without any evidence of their safety.
The EPA has tested only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in the agency's inventory.
The groundbreaking deal was reached between New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who, for years, has pushed a tough bill to modernize chemical protections, and Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who has been trying to build support for a more modest, industry-backed proposal.
"Our agreement shows that protecting our health and environment does not have to impede our economic growth," Manchin said in a prepared statement.
All sides generally agree that the existing law, known as TSCA, is outdated and isn't working well.
When Congress passed the law in 1976, tens of thousands of chemicals already being used were exempt from review. The EPA can call for testing of a chemical only if it shows evidence that the substance might be harmful.
In West Virginia, for example, the EPA has never finalized a draft risk assessment issued in 2005 for the DuPont Co. chemical C8, which has been linked to a variety of illnesses and polluted water supplies near the company's Washington Works plant south of Parkersburg.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in March that, of just 83 chemicals the EPA has prioritized for risk assessment, the agency had initiated only seven of those assessments in 2012 and planned to start only 18 additional reviews this year.
When he announced earlier this year that he plans to retire, Lautenberg listed toxic-chemical safety reform as one of the issues he wanted to resolve before ending his three-decade career. However, the effort faced strong opposition from industry groups and Senate Republicans.
Lautenberg and Vitter announced their compromise bill Wednesday, and received immediate praise from both sides. Among the key provisions of the new bill:
• The EPA would review all active chemicals in commerce and label them as "high" or "low" priority based on potential risk to human health and the environment. Agency officials would be required to conduct additional safety reviews for high-priority substances.
• New chemicals entering the market must be screened, and the EPA is given authority to prohibit unsafe substances from entering the market.
• The legislation provides "clear paths" to getting new chemicals on the market, while protecting trade secrets and intellectual property from disclosure.
While generally supportive of the legislation, citizen groups also noted some weaknesses, such as the lack of firm deadlines for many EPA actions.
"It certainly is a compromise bill, but it represents a pretty major political breakthrough," said Richard Dennison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Over the past few months, industry officials had been aggressively lobbying Manchin, and environmental groups believed Manchin was close to signing on to Vitter's bill, a move that would give that version a key Democratic vote.
Instead, Manchin urged Lautenberg and Vitter to try to work toward a bill they could both live with, according to accounts from citizen and industry organizations that closely followed the talks.
Manchin's involvement "helped create a dynamic" that brought Lautenberg and Vitter together, said Cal Dooley, CEO of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.
"[Manchin] brought them both in and said, 'I prefer the more conservative approach, but I'd like you guys to work this out,'" said Andy Igrejas, director of the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition, which has pushed for a strong TSCA bill.
As governor -- and since joining the Senate -- Manchin wasn't known as an especially strong advocate for tougher environmental regulations. When he was governor, Manchin was criticized when he urged the West Virginia Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a nearly $200 million punitive-damages jury award against DuPont in a case over pollution of the Harrison County community of Spelter by a zinc smelter.
During his first two years in the Senate, Manchin has a 54 percent voting record on environmental issues, as scored by the League of Conservation Voters. He received poor marks, in large part, because of his efforts to protect the coal industry from tougher water and air pollution restrictions.
On the chemical safety bill, though, Manchin was lobbied not just by traditional environmental groups, but also by organizations advocating for children's health, including the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, whose bishop, the Rev. Michael Bransfield, wrote to Manchin in January to urge him to support Lautenberg's bill.
"I urge you to support this initiative to protect the health of the most vulnerable among us, and to resist attempts to weaken such efforts," Bransfield wrote.
"Our understanding is that [Manchin] played a significant role in bringing the two sides together," said Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, another group that discussed the issue with Manchin. "This was basically an issue that was at a standstill."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.