Frank Lautenberg: The Senate Loses an Environmental Champion

The oldest living senator leaves behind a legacy of environmental and public health protection—but doesn't live to see chemical safety reform

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New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died on June 2, was a champion of chemical safety reform

As a fifth-term senator, New Jersey‘s Frank Lautenberg—who died June 3 at the age of 89—had more than enough time in office to put his stamp on a wide variety of legislation. You can read the full New York Times obituary to get a sense of the scope of the career of the last World War II veteran to serve in the Senate. As a reliably liberal senator, he will probably be best remembered for his successful fights against the alcohol and tobacco industries—including leading the effort in 1989 to ban smoking on commercial flights. (Yes, less than 25 years ago people could actually smoke on airplanes, something that now seems practically prehistoric.)

Environmentalists have special reason to mourn Lautenberg’s loss. He was a steadfast champion of public transportation, including Amtrak. But his real achievements were at the intersection of public health and the environment—especially on toxic industrial chemicals. He authored the “Toxic Right to Know” act,which gave the public the ability to find out what toxic chemicals were being released into their neighborhood—a key piece of legislation in New Jersey, which might be called the Garden State but which long been home to a polluting chemical industry.

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Andy Igrejas, the executive director of the nonprofit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families group and a New Jersey native, put Lautenberg’s accomplishments into perspective:

We are all deeply saddened to learn of Senator Frank Lautenberg’s passing this morning. He was a genuine public health hero, and the leading champion for protecting the public from toxic chemicals. The Senator never forgot where he came from, and who he was serving. He approached health and environmental issues as a bread-and-butter concern for working families, and he was working hard on their behalf up until the end. He will be missed.

Lautenberg was still working on toxic chemical reform when he died in office. For years he was the driving force in the efforts to update the nearly 40-year-old Toxic Substance Control Act (TCSA), the outdated law that deals with nearly all industrial chemicals, including household ones like those found in plastics. Even the chemical industry has come to agree that some reform is needed for TCSA, which hasn’t been updated since it was signed into law in 1976. The burden of proving that new chemicals are dangerous falls almost entirely on the government, even as industry confidentiality privileges deny regulators the information they need to make informed decisions. In the years since TCSA was enacted, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only put limits on a handful of dangerous chemicals, and has largely been unable to respond to new science indicating possible risks from widespread chemicals like bisphenol-A.

Less than two weeks before his death, Lautenberg and Republican Senator David Vitter announced an agreement on new legislation that would update TCSA. The bill would require the EPA review the safety of all chemicals—TCSA allowed a number to simply be grandfathered in—and would close some of the loopholes that allow chemical companies to claim confidentiality. Many environmentalists weren’t happy with the bill, but the very fact that Vitter decided to sign on—he’s a chemical industry booster—gave it a better chance of actually making it into law.

It’s not clear what the chances of TCSA reform are now that Lautenberg is gone. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, will name an interim replacement who will almost certainly be far more conservative than Lautenberg was. Even if Newark Mayor Cory Booker runs and wins a special election to fill Lautenberg’s seat for a full term, as most expect, he’ll neither have Lautenberg’s seniority nor, possibly, his passion for chemical safety.

“We can’t permit this assault on our children’s health — and our own health — to continue,” Lautenberg told me in 2009. Someone else will have to carry on that fight now.

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