Sweeping chemical regulation bill before President Barack Obama _lowres

AP Photo by J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE -- U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., joined by, from left, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., Bonnie Lautenberg, widow of the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., talks May 19 about bipartisan legislation to improve the federal regulation of chemicals and toxic substances during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Sweeping federal legislation awaiting the president’s signature would address the smells emanating from chemical plants that have scared generations of south Louisiana residents.

“Now, if I smell something, it’s got to be bad,” said Gregory Bowser, executive vice president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, which represents companies that make Louisiana the nation’s second-largest chemical manufacturing state.

Suspicions lead to complaints, sometimes protests.

But the new measure, pushed through Congress largely by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., will help, Bowser said, adding that now “the regulators will have some science at their disposal that can tell them whether it’s a health hazard or whether it just smelled bad.”

The legislation would require safety reviews for all chemicals in active commerce — from household cleaners to computer screens — that had not been tested before. The evaluation would use a health-based standard rather than the existing “cost-benefit safety standard,” which had kept the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from banning asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent.

While making it more difficult for industry to keep chemical information secret, the measure also clarifies a hodgepodge of state rules that have grown up over 40 years, leading to an array of regulations from the strict in states like California to far looser requirements in states like Louisiana. The measure also sets deadlines for EPA decisions that can be enforced in court.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act officially was sent to the White House on Tuesday.

“We believe that this is a rare moment of bipartisanship in Congress, and we are pleased to see that the Environmental Protection Agency has been given additional authority to ensure that we can keep our families safe. … The president will sign it,” Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said during a news conference aboard Air Force Once en route to New York.

President Barack Obama has 10 days to sign the bill into law.

Lautenberg is a New Jersey Democrat who, before his death in 2013, had been working with Vitter to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the last of the major environmental laws passed in the 1970s.

The federal law, however, regulated only a handful of the 60,000 chemicals on sale at the time, and that list has grown exponentially.

The negotiations and hearings from the 2013 effort led to Vitter and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to introduce the bill that now sits on the president’s desk.

“We come into contact with chemicals every single day, whether it’s cars, computers, fertilizer or even Mardi Gras beads. That’s why passing my chemical safety reform bill is so important, especially for Louisiana,” Vitter said in a prepared statement. “The benefits of my bill are twofold in that it modernizes the current system, and it protects our families and communities.”

Vitter said by making the regulatory environment easier to navigate, Louisiana chemical and manufacturing companies will be able to focus more of their resources on long-term growth, research, and development and innovation, which would create new jobs.

Louisiana’s chemical industry supports 150,000 direct and indirect jobs. Incoming shipments to Louisiana are valued at $14 billion annually, he said.

Some opponents say the legislation fails to adequately protect consumers from chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems such as cancer. The Associated Press quoted Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as calling it a “sweeping federal takeover of chemical regulation.”

But overall, the bill had wide support, with 60 congressional cosponsors and backers from groups usually at odds, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an association of some of the nation’s largest manufacturers.

“The Lautenberg Act fixes the biggest problems with our current law — by requiring safety reviews for chemicals in use today, mandating greater scrutiny of new chemicals before they can be sold, removing the barriers that prevented EPA from banning asbestos and other harmful chemicals, enhancing transparency and much more. While not perfect, this bill will be a dramatic improvement over current law,” Richard Denison, the lead senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a news release.

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