POLITICS: PennAve

Senators mount push to strengthen chemical inspections

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West Virginia,EPA,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Coal,Zack Colman,Joe Manchin,Barbara Boxer,West Virginia Chemical Spill

Momentum is building in the Senate to advance a bill aimed at preventing a chemical spill similar to the one that left 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water last month. But at this point, it's a one-chamber effort.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle Tuesday seemed open to pushing legislation sponsored by Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer, Calif., and West Virginia's Joe Manchin and John Rockefeller III. The bill, among other things, would set minimum federal standards for chemical storage, order more inspections, call for industry to share more information about the chemicals they store and require companies to develop emergency response plans.

Supporters of the effort said it would help close loopholes in federal law that the West Virginia incident brought to light.

"People say, well, let the industry take care of it. That's an Appalachian myth," Rockefeller said in testimony at a Senate Environment and Public Works Water and Wildlife subcommittee hearing. "They will cut corners, and they will get away with it. Regulation is soft in West Virginia. It's always been soft."

But there's no legislative companion in the House, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in the spill's immediate aftermath that current regulations were sufficient.

That's not to say there won't be one at some point. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is holding a field hearing in Charleston, W.Va., near where 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, a chemical used to treat coal, leaked into the Elk River last month from a Freedom Industries-owned storage container.

Manchin told reporters Tuesday that Boehner is "very open to sitting down" to discuss the senator's bill and possibly change his stance.

"Just to pass something for the sake of saying we passed something [in the Senate] and doesn't go anywhere doesn't help the American people," Manchin said, later adding, "If we can get broad-based support here, it might help over there too. And that's what we're working on."

For now, though, House Republicans are focused on updating the nearly four-decade-old Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976, the federal law that regulates chemical safety.

The House Energy and Commerce Energy and Environment subcommittee held a hearing on the topic Tuesday, which included a discussion on the section of the law most closely tied to the issues highlighted by the West Virginia spill.

On that section, which covers information collection and reporting, committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., warned of overzealous requirements that could become expensive.

"We’ve also got to make sure we don’t go overboard and become obsessed with data collection for its own sake," he said in written testimony.

But Senate Democrats argued TSCA, as the law is known, doesn't address the deficiencies that led to the spill.

That's because it doesn't cover inspection of storage facilities, Boxer noted. She added that legislation sponsored by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would have classified the chemical, MCHM, as low priority, which she said would have precluded the state from taking action.

The spill illuminated several areas of weak state enforcement — the last inspection at the storage facility came in 1991. It also underscored a lack of information about MCHM, as state officials could not say whether it posed health risks for days after the spill. And regulators and lawmakers have pointed fingers at industry as well, as they noted it was residents, not Freedom Industries, who first reported they smelled a licorice-like scent that investigators later found came from MCHM.

"The current Clean Water Act does contain authority to deal with this, but it's very loosy goosey," said Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Boxer said she hopes to have a committee markup on the bill later this week. Vitter, the committee's top Republican, said he supports the general effort.

Vitter, however, has put his weight behind his TSCA bill.

Most lawmakers agree the legislation needs updating, but they disagree on how to do it. The biggest concern is that the current law doesn't give the Environmental Protection Agency the teeth to take action against harmful chemicals.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who has taken the Democratic lead on the TSCA bill in the stead of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he is hoping to update the proposal so that "we're not talking about an outdated bill as introduced."

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