Dorothy Felix lamented that her grandchildren will never see the “natural beauty” that once existed in her small Mossville community near Lake Charles before it was polluted by the 14 industrial facilities located in or near the area.

“The industrial companies have built around, over, and under Mossville as if our community, settled more than 200 years ago, does not exist,” said Felix, who heads the Mossville Environmental Action Now group. “We lost the eastern section of Mossville to toxic chemical contamination from underground pipeline leaks.”

She argued that “harsh fumes” constantly force people indoors and that the residents are at much greater risks of getting cancer, being sterilized and having their kids suffer from developmental problems as a result.

Felix was among the environmental and public health advocates arguing at a congressional hearing Wednesday that the proposed Chemical Safety Improvement Act fails to protect vulnerable “hot spot” communities located near chemical plants.

The legislation is sponsored by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died in June. Debate on the bill began Wednesday in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, The bipartisan bill has 13 GOP sponsors and 13 Democratic sponsors, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

Although all parties criticize the nation’s current chemical safety regulatory system – the continued use of asbestos was repeatedly cited as an example – Congress has failed to come to a compromise on how to fix the problems.

The current law gives the EPA relatively little oversight for approving or restricting products, while leaving much of the work to individual states. Private industry has sought a more uniform framework. The proposed bill would create a clearer federal framework of guidelines and restrictions.

Vitter made the case Wednesday for an overhaul and standardization of the nation’s chemical safety regulatory system by further empowering the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate tens of thousands of chemicals that were previously “grandfathered,” as well as future chemicals proposed for commercial use.

Vitter complained that many of the environmental complaints are “intentionally distorted.”

“I am very thankful to be able to say that I worked hand in hand with Sen. Lautenberg on this – his legacy issue – and we found the first ever bipartisan compromise to help overhaul and significantly strengthen federal chemical regulations that would benefit every citizen in every state,” Vitter said.

Opponents argued the bill does not do enough to protect vulnerable communities in places like southern Louisiana and that it would weaken regulations in progressive states like California that have already enacted their own chemical safety systems.

“When people in our states vote for very specific protections from harmful toxins, their rights must not be preempted,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “And I hope we all agree that victims who suffer harm from dangerous chemicals have a clear right to hold industry accountable in order to prevent further injuries and deaths.”

Vitter has agreed to tweak the bill to ensure that people fully maintain the right to sue over chemical exposure.

Vitter argued that a few states could only be “preempted” by the EPA in rare circumstances and that states like California would still benefit by the bill because many more chemicals would fall under EPA review.

Under current law, the EPA can call for safety testing only after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical may be dangerous. As a result, the EPA has only been able to require testing for roughly 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States, and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances since the law was first enacted in 1976.

Andrew Hackman, a vice president for the Toy Industry Association, Inc., argued that companies need a “uniform approach” because different standards in each state means “duplicative” and “extreme and high testing costs” that are unfair to industry.

Boxer said she opposes the bill in its current form, contending that EPA “preempting” states’ rights could weaken chemical safety and public health in states like California, Washington, Maine and more that have their own regulatory systems.