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News from Stockholm Convention COP-4, Geneva, May 4-8, 2009

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Congress and the POPs Treaty

On April 19, 2001, President Bush endorsed the POPs treaty at a Rose Garden ceremony and the United States signed the treaty in May 2001. In the subsequent years political conflict over federal implementing legislation has prevented U.S. ratification of the Stockholm Convention. Ironically, diverse U.S. stakeholders –including chemical producers, workers, environmental advocates, health experts, and scientists – expressed support for this goal. But they have disagreed on how to ensure authority under U.S. law to implement the obligations of the treaty, particularly with respect to the addition of new POPs.

The push for POPs implementing legislation began in 2002 with two competing Senate bills (S. 2118 and S. 2507) to amend TSCA and FIFRA. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on the proposals. However, neither bill advanced before the end of 107th Congress. In April 2004 a Senate POPs bill to amend TSCA and FIFRA (S. 1486) was reported out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It was placed on the Senate Calendar but never came to a floor vote.

In the House, two “discussion drafts” on TSCA POPs illustrated the divergent views in Congress. A proposal by Republican Congressman Paul Gillmor, chairman of the subcommittee on Hazardous Materials and the Environment drew the support of chemical and pesticide manufacturers, as well as officials of the Bush Administration. Under the Gillmor bill, before the U.S. EPA could regulate a POPs chemical added to the treaty, EPA must conduct its own independent review, and employ a cost-benefit standard rather than the treaty’s precautionary approach. In effect, it would make it harder for EPA to regulate a new POP. Even worse, the Gillmor POPs bill could have preempted stricter state legislation.

The House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials held a contentious hearing on Gillmor’s proposal in July 2004. Shortly after, Democratic Representative Hilda Solis offered an alternative proposal. The Solis draft embodied the POPs treaty's fundamental goals and approaches on POPs, took advantage of the international scientific review, and strengthened EPA's authority to regulate new POPs. It also explicitly allowed states to take stronger actions to protect health and the environment. This proposal was supported by 42 environmental, health and labor groups in September 2004 letter. The 108th Congress adjourned without acting on POPs legislation.

To help jumpstart stalled implementing legislation in the 109th Congress, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice sent a July 22, 2005 letter urging Congressional leaders to rapidly adopt necessary implementing legislation so that the United States could ratify the Stockholm POPs treaty and participate in its implementation. In a September 7, 2005 letter to Congress, three dozen environmental and health groups outlined elements of U.S. leadership in ratifying the POPs treaty.

Representatives Gillmor and Solis championed competing TSCA POPs bills. Gillmor’s bill (HR 4591) introduced December 16, 2005, and Solis’ bill (HR 4800) introduced February 16, 2006, staked out sharply opposing views for how the United States fulfills international commitments under U.S. law. In a February 28, 2006 letter, 45 environment and health NGOs supported the Solis bill approach to POP implementation. Eleven State Attorneys General threw their strong support behind the Solis bill in a February 28, 2006 letter and highlighted the inability of the Gillmor bill to protect human health from dangerous POPs. On March 2, 2006, the House Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on U.S. POPs legislation. The Gillmor bill passed the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on May 18, 2006, on a largely party line vote.

At the same time, the House bill to amend FIFRA (HR 3849) breezed through the House Agriculture Committee. The bill was introduced Representatives Lucas, Goodlatte, Holden and Peterson. The July 20, 2006 House Agriculture Committee hearing on POPs legislation took testimony from only one witness, EPA Administrator Steven Johnson who supported the bill. One week later the House Agriculture Committee reported the bill out on a unanimous voice vote September 19, 2006. HR 3849 was placed on the House Calendar but never came to the floor. A companion Senate FIFRA POPs bill (S. 2042) was introduced November 17, 2005. However, the Senate took no further action on this legislation after it was referred to committee.

The November 2006 mid-term elections promised a dramatic change in House leadership. Representative Gillmor made one last attempt to bring his POPs implementing legislation to the floor. On November 15, 2006, the Gillmor bill was placed on the House Calendar. Concerted opposition by environment and health advocates, labor and State officials opposed the Gillmor bill. Ultimately, the Gillmor bill never reached the floor.

In 2007 the House of Representatives swung back to Democratic control in 2007, but there was little opportunity for bipartisan agreement on POPs in Congress or between Congress and the Bush Administration. Congress remained divided over the role of the United States in international environmental treaties, including on POPs. The Bush Administration never invested sufficient political capital to achieve its stated goal of joining the POPs treaty. As a result no POPs implementing legislation was introduced in the House or the Senate. The 110th Congress ended no closer to ratification.