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By Melanie Condon

The recent chemical spill and resulting water crisis in West Virginia that left 300,000 residents without potable water is likely to push the federal government to reform the regulation of toxic chemicals.

A chemical spill into the Elk River left 300,000 people without water. Photo by Tyler Evert / AP To be fair, reform of chemical policies has been one of the issues the 113th Congress has been tackling even before the spill. Talk of toxic chemical reform really began to take shape in May 2013 when the now-late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), along with Senator David Vitter (R-La.), introduced the Chemical Improvement Safety Act (S.1009) and has continued on with hearings in both the Senate and House environmental committees.

These reform efforts lost momentum as the urgent need to pass a federal budget took precedence and consumed most of Congress’ time at the end of 2013. Given the recent events in West Virginia, however, the topic is again coming to the fore. Congress is poised to make a real effort to reform the way our country deals with toxic chemicals and NCSL will be actively engaged throughout the process.   

The NCSL Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee along with the Law and Criminal Justice Committee sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July supporting Toxic Substances Control Act reform efforts but noting serious issues with the preemption section of S. 1009. The section of concern—Section 15 entitled “Preemption”—prohibits states from enacting stricter or stronger chemical safety regulations than those provided for in the bill. While one of NCSL’s policy directives is dedicated to the serious need for reforming toxic chemicals, we cannot support any reform that hinders state’s laws to protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens.

The preemption of state laws is also an issue for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who has publicly noted her serious concerns with the proposed bill’s ability to preempt California environmental laws, such as the green chemistry laws, among others.

NCSL will continue to work with congressional staff and interested parties to collaborate on reform legislation that protects our country without infringing on state sovereignty. This is just another way NCSL is working for you.

Melanie Condon is an NCSL  policy associate who works with the Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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