Why has environmental law, an area of widespread popular engagement and legal activity, met with such limited success in the last half century? Corporate money? Special interests? Neoliberalism? These usual villains are not innocent, but I am interested here in how companies and their lobbyists used provisions of law, namely the 1948 Administrative Procedures Act (APA), to thwart stronger regulation....
My focus has been the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. This was the first US law aimed at providing environmental and health oversight of all commercial chemicals. The act was introduced in 1971 as part of the Nixon administration’s environmental initiatives, and different versions of the bill passed both houses by the fall of 1972, only to die in Senate-House Conference Committee during the 92nd session of Congress. In 1974, amidst the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, the Senate and House of Representatives again passed different versions of TSCA. Once again, the legislation died in committee. Early on, it appeared that none of the bills would not become law, a simple solution for its opponents.
In July 1975, a scandal reignited political pressure for chemicals regulation. Dozens of workers at chemical factory in Virginia were poisoned through their exposure to Kepone, a neurotoxic pesticide manufactured in the plant. The Ford administration made it clear that some version of TSCA needed to be signed into law to appease political pressure. Representatives for the Manufacturing Chemists Association (MCA), a trade group representing the chemical industry, began hammering out the details of a bill with Congressional staffers. The final statute specified numerous procedural hurdles for EPA in fulfilling its mandate to regulate chemicals. These hurdles were not conceptual slipups, but compromises made to produce a bill acceptable to industry. James T. O’Reilly, an industry lawyer who actually helped write the provisions, has said: “The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) contains such obscure and inconsistent phrases that its supporters were doomed to frustration.” The legal scholar Kevin Gaynor, who analyzed the law shortly after it was enacted, called it “a regulatory morass.” Even its provisions “ensuring transparency of safety data” became “rigid procedural handcuffs.” This was a statute designed to make industry oversight difficult.
Many of these complexities had to do with how TSCA addressed requirements of the APA. For example, rather than make toxicity testing of commercial chemicals required for either old or new chemicals, the bill stipulated that EPA would have to issue a rule to require testing of any individual substance. Requiring rule-making on a chemical-by-chemical basis meant that the agency could only request testing data on a limited number of commercial chemicals, of the 60,000 on the market and thousands added each year.
(from Environmental Working Group)