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White House backs bill to overhaul asbestos regulation

Posted at 5:31 PM, May 23, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House and top House Democrats said Monday they will support a bipartisan bill to overhaul regulation of asbestos and other dangerous chemicals, clearing the way for the bill's passage in Congress and signature by President Barack Obama.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and two other high-ranking Democrats said they remain concerned that the bill limits states' ability to act aggressively on toxic substances.

But changes made by Democrats in recent days ensure the measure will protect families and communities from toxic substances, Pelosi said in a statement with House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Hours later, the White House said it strongly supports the legislation, which would be the first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was approved in 1976. A vote is expected in the House as soon as Tuesday.

"The bill is a clear improvement over the current TSCA and represents a historic advancement for both chemical safety and environmental law," the White House said in a statement.

The proposal will require the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate new and existing chemicals against a new risk-based safety standard that includes considerations for vulnerable people such as children and pregnant women, the White House said.

The bill also establishes clear and enforceable deadlines for the EPA to act; increases transparency of chemical information by limiting unwarranted claims of confidentiality by chemical companies; and provides funding for the EPA to carry out "these significant new responsibilities," the White House said.

Pallone had said last week he opposed an agreement reached by House and Senate negotiators, saying it was "weaker than current law." Pallone said he was especially concerned about provisions in the bill concerning state regulation of toxic chemicals.

New Jersey and other liberal-leaning states such as California, Massachusetts and Vermont have moved aggressively to regulate chemicals, and Pallone and other critics feared the federal bill could block state efforts even as it imposed the first-ever national standards for tens of thousands of chemicals, including formaldehyde and styrene, that are used in homes and businesses every day.

A proposal announced last week declares that any state law or rule in place before April 22 would not be pre-empted by federal law. The proposal also would allow states to work on some regulations while federal rules are being developed, a process that can take years.

States that do not regulate chemicals closely would follow the federal standard.

Pallone and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said last week that "it would be better for us to not act at all than to pass the deal" proposed by House and Senate negotiators.

Pallone's opposition was especially notable, since the bill is named after a fellow New Jersey Democrat, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

In their statement Monday, Pallone, Pelosi and Hoyer said that Lautenberg "dedicated his career" to fixing the toxic-substance law, adding: "We honor his memory in this bipartisan legislation bearing his name."

The measure "is not the bill Democrats would have written on our own, but it is a long-overdue step forward to protect families and communities from toxic substances," the three Democrats said.

The statement by House Democrats comes as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said he opposes the bill.

While the legislation allows Vermont and other states to continue enforcing existing state regulations to keep adults and children safe from toxic chemicals, "it makes it more difficult for states to set new, stricter standards," Sanders said. "That makes no sense. Federal chemical regulations should be a floor, not a ceiling. States should not be stopped from going above and beyond minimum federal safety standards."

Supporters say they hope to move the bill through Congress this week, with the goal of sending it to Obama's desk by Memorial Day.