The chemical and related manufacturing industry spent $65.9 million on lobbying Congress and federal agencies in 2022, fighting – in part – against stronger chemical restrictions. That’s a nominal record for the industry, an OpenSecrets’ analysis of recent federal disclosure filings found.
In the past, the industry has successfully lobbied to water down federal regulations on chemicals that pose serious health risks. This success was partly due to chronic funding challenges and staffing shortages at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is tasked with regulating toxic chemicals under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. Roadblocks under former President Donald Trump’s administration, both cash-driven and due to his EPA appointees with roots in the chemical industry, also curbed the agency’s regulatory capabilities in recent years.
President Joe Biden’s administration, however, is preparing to set stronger standards on a range of toxic chemicals after legislation to expand regulations stalled under the Trump administration. New measures to restrict certain toxic compounds like asbestos and a group of chemicals known as PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals,” were proposed in March.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association representing over 190 American chemical companies, was the top lobbying organization in the industry for the fourth year in a row. The industry group spent $19.8 million in 2022, more money than it previously spent in a single year, to lobby legislation relating to chemical regulation, taxes and transportation.
The trade group lobbied for the EPA to “resolve its ongoing problems implementing” the agency’s New Chemicals Program launched in February 2022, said Scott Openshaw, the council American Chemistry Council’s senior director of communications in an email exchange with OpenSecrets. The multi-year program aims to “modernize the process and bring innovative science to the review of new chemicals before they can enter the marketplace.”
Some other lobbying efforts, Openshaw added, were in support of ratification of the Kigali Amendment, an international agreement to reduce the consumption and production of the greenhouse gas hydrofluorocarbons; congressional legislation that prevent a “catastrophic shutdown” of the rail networks following the hazardous incident in East Palestine, Ohio; passage of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act and Surface Transportation Board reforms.
The second biggest federal lobbying spender of the chemical industry in 2022 was Dow Inc., a Michigan-based corporation that spent $6.9 million. Some top issues they tackled in their lobbying efforts related to energy and nuclear power, as well as environment and contamination at superfund sites – polluted locations requiring long term clean up efforts. Dow is among the top three chemical producers in the world and was formerly merged with DuPont.
LyondellBasell Industries, the U.S. subsidiary of a Dutch chemical company, was the third biggest industry spender, at $3.4 million in 2022. LyondellBasell’s top issues echoed those of the American Chemical Council.
Decades of regulatory inaction and new chemicals provision proposals
The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, drafted alongside chemical industry magnates, was long criticized by public health advocates and environmentalists for being outdated and inadequate in terms of protecting Americans from harmful chemicals. The limited power the bill had was largely revoked in 1991 when an appeals court overturned the EPA’s attempt to ban asbestos.
The bipartisan Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act signed into law by former President Barack Obama in June 2016, expanded regulations and risk assessment requirements for thousands of chemicals for the first time after four decades of regulatory inaction. The bill was seen as a compromise between health-focused legislators and the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council, which lobbied the bill’s implementation according to its 2022 disclosures, dubbed it a “watershed moment.”
Following the amendment, the EPA prioritized 10 chemicals for regulatory review in 2016, including asbestos and trichloroethylene – two highly toxic chemicals banned or placed in highest levels of restriction by other countries, but not in the U.S.
But the EPA’s proposals to ban some of these chemicals were delayed when Trump took office in 2017. The new administration revised the EPA’s definition of “risk evaluation” under new recruits from the chemical industry overseeing the amended law.
Under the Biden administration, the EPA restarted its chemical regulations efforts and proposed an asbestos ban in April 2022. The American Chemical Council opposed the ban saying it would jeopardize the U.S. economy, and a dozen Republican attorneys general wrote a letter to the EPA saying the ban would impact the chemical industry negatively if enacted. Exposure to asbestos is known to cause cancer, and nearly 40,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers each year in the U.S.
Last Thursday, federal lawmakers reintroduced a bill that would outlaw asbestos use. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), said in a press release, “We’ve known for generations that asbestos is lethal, yet the U.S. has continued to allow some industries to value profits over people.” He added the U.S. was lagging behind other developed nations in terms of banning asbestos, and that the move was long overdue.
This month, the EPA also proposed the first nationwide restrictions on six types of PFAS in the nation’s drinking water. These synthetic chemicals are used in nonstick cookware, water-repellent textile and firefighting foams. They are estimated to be in the bloodstream of virtually all humans and animals. Such chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because of the slow rate at which they break down in nature and their potential to linger in the human body and have been linked to cancer, birth defects, altered immune and thyroid function, and liver and kidney diseases.
Previously, under the Trump administration, the industry killed or delayed nearly all PFAS legislations.
“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a news release. “This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”
The American Chemical Council called the EPA’s approach “misguided” and “overly conservative,” expressing doubt over the agency’s scientific methods underlying the proposed draft.