‘This isn’t just another news conference,’ says committee chair about growing support for Udall-Vitter chemical bill

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., wanted reporters to know that he and other senators were actually going to make some news Thursday (May 7).

“This is a big deal, this isn’t just another news conference,” said Environment and Public Works Committee Chair James Inhofe R-Okla., on growing support for a chemical regulatory bill he says could become the first major environmental legislation passed by Congress since 1990.

Joining Inhofe and Sen. David Vitter, R-La, lead sponsor of the chemical bill along with Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, were some of the Senate’s strongest advocates for environmental protection. Vitter has actively opposed President Barack Obama’s proposals to limit carbon emissions the president links to climate change, and Inhofe seems to relish the characterization of him by environmentalists as a climate change denier.

“You don’t see this group gathered together very often,” said Udall, who drafted the bill with Vitter, then together with the Louisiana Republican, negotiated changes in their bill with some of the Senate’s strongest advocates for tough environmental regulations.

Udall said that the talks had helped produce 12 new co-sponsors.

Vitter, who arrived a few minutes late for the news conference, quickly announced “breaking news,” proclaiming that, as of the last hour, two more co-sponsors had been added and, by his count, he and Udall now had achieved the 60-vote threshold needed to pass legislation in the 100-member Senate.

What is fueling the unusual coalition is recognition by both environmentalists and the chemical industry that the current chemical regulatory bill, weakened by adverse court rulings, provides only an illusion of real regulation.

The negotiations produced a bill that would give the EPA authority to regulate dangerous chemicals, and not permit companies to cite the cost of regulation as a way to block meaningful oversight. In return, the chemical companies get a process that, for the most part, will spare them from duplicative state regulations for chemicals being prioritized for regulation by federal regulators.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said he had sent a letter to Udall and Vitter pointing out nine improvements he believed were needed in their original bill, followed by “intense negotiations,” that led all nine issues being addressed.

Top among them, he said, is a provision allowing state attorneys general, if they so choose, to help the Environmental Protection Agency regulate compliance of priority chemicals.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said that he and other proponents were motivated to negotiate because current chemical regulations are ineffective.

“That the most powerful nation on the planet has been powerless to protect our children and our citizens from toxic chemicals is an outrage that we have come together to address,” he said.

The regulations are particularly important to Louisiana, which is second only to Texas in the size of its chemical industry. The industry counts some 28,857 direct full-time employees and contractors, working for some 64 companies operating at 108 locations, according to the Louisiana Chemical Association.

Vitter said he met with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell Thursday about scheduling debate on the bill.

“I certainly can’t speak for Mitch, but it was a very productive discussion, and he recognizes how significant this is and what a positive, bipartisan accomplishment this will be,” Vitter said.

Vitter is running for governor and acknowledged he wants the bill passed this year.

Despite the optimism expressed Thursday, there’s still some significant opposition, including from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. For example, she wants the legislation to address children’s cancer clusters, communities with higher incidents of cancer that some attribute to exposure to chemical pollutants.