Major Movements

June 4, 2013

This blog post was authored by HEFN Director Kathy Sessions.

Editor's note: We were saddened to hear yesterday of the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).  Senator Lautenberg was a tireless champion of environmental health and deeply dedicated to protecting American families from toxic chemicals.  HEFN extends heartfelt condolences to the Senator’s family, staff, constituents, and friends. 

In a move that surprised nearly everyone, decades of work to force reforms of US chemicals policy have recently turned into rapid movement on Capitol Hill to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

HEFN itself was created in part because of health and environmental funders’ concerns about toxic chemicals.  Much of our work ever since has aimed to build philanthropic support for health-protective shifts towards safer chemicals and materials.  HEFN’s members have invested years of effort and millions of dollars in deepening scientific understanding, broadening public awareness, and enabling strategic advocacy, with TSCA reform identified as a major milestone towards public health protection.

So it was a big development for our community when Senators Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Vitter (R-LA), formerly champions of opposing approaches to TSCA reform, recently introduced a compromise “Chemical Safety Improvement Act” (CSIA) bill along with a bipartisan group of other Senators.

Setting aside any particular take on the CSIA, getting bipartisan interest in new environmental regulations right now is a small miracle. Part of this story, already being explored in the press, is about the legislators themselves.  Another, largely-unsung force is the environmental health and justice community.  HEFN members and their grantees have systematically built a diverse movement with several organizing hubs and campaigns.  These diverse elements have grown into multiple pressures for greater health protection, converging on TSCA reform as a major target.

Before the Senators’ move towards compromise, the chemical industry and many of its downstream customers had already conceded that TSCA reform was necessary.  Key stakeholders across industry and advocacy had negotiated elements of a compromise.  The environmental health and justice community deserves much credit for building pressure for action.

Now that a moment they helped leverage is here, NGOs face new challenges.  TSCA reform has been a long time coming, but the Lautenberg-Vitter compromise came up quickly.  Groups have been feverishly analyzing content, and articulating hopes, concerns, and positions amidst a fast-paced, high-stakes political process.  Few have endorsed the bill so far.  Some are engaging but pressing for amendments, while others are outright opposed, and a few issues are emerging as shared focal points of concern.  (We’ve invited groups to post links on HEFN’s Facebook page to analyses, statements and other relevant resources.)

Where will this go?  While nothing is predictable – including with this week’s passing of one of its legislative champions – the proposed CSIA appears to have strong prospects. Other stakeholders with keen interest in the outcomes are fully engaged.  The bill has attracted media attention and endorsements from editorial boards of the Washington Post and New York Times.  HEFN does not advocate any particular grant or take a stand on any legislation.  We do encourage funders to consider these developments and their significance for the field.

How the environmental health and justice community engages with this policy process – one it helped push into play – is of consequence for the legislative process and the field’s relationships on and off the Hill.  And how players engage with one another in the process may be of as much consequence as any bill content.  This diverse movement’s varied stakeholders may view developments differently.  A healthy movement can tolerate disagreements, if expressed with respect and in ways that preserve the collective ability to build power for a long term agenda.

TSCA reform would be a big milestone.  But any bill making its way into law today will be only a partial step down the road.  Even groundbreaking legislation will not ultimately protect people unless it is implemented.  TSCA reform legislation will not address all concerns, from agricultural chemicals, to legacy exposures in overburdened communities, to major needs in science and green chemistry.  And some of the tougher political dynamics surrounding TSCA reform now reflect broader challenges of money in politics and in our democratic process.

At HEFN we are proud of the environmental health and justice community’s advances so far towards healthier conditions for all.  We will continue to help funders learn, collaborate, and support further progress, in this moment and beyond it.


From our Blog

Screenshot of Senate Committee Channel
Blog posted on April 22, 2015
Advocates and funders have been investing in an overhaul of U.S. chemicals policy for over a decade, but the next few months will be critical. This blog post provides a HEFN staff perspective on the...

Stay Informed