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Oral history interview of the toxic substances control act from the perspective of Steven D. Jellinek

  • 2010-Jan-29

This oral history is one in a series that looks at the history of the Toxic Substances Control Act from the perspectives of the individuals involved in its creation, implementation, and execution.

Steven D. Jellinek received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Rochester and a master’s degree in public affairs from Syracuse University before accepting a position at the Internal Revenue Service. He was at the Internal Revenue Service for several years before being invited to work with the newly established Council on Environmental Quality. Once the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed, he became the first Assistant Administrator for Toxic Substances at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and soon the Assistant Administrator for Pesticides and Toxic Substances. The position was expected to be challenging: TSCA was written with many procedural hurdles and the environmental Congressional committees were not eager to oversee its implementation. The law quickly became an “orphan” in Congress.

Jellinek encountered many challenges in implementing the new law: there was no inventory rule and no classificatory system for chemicals; there were interagency politics that had to be negotiated; there was little statutorial guidance for prioritizing exiting chemicals, or even defining a chemical of concern; and there were no technologies of risk assessment or toxicity testing. The Office of General Counsel advised caution in exercising the new law, and industry was quick to challenge EPA rules. Jellinek inherited what was considered an inefficient organizational structure in the Office of Toxic Substances. The premanufacturing review process was one of the few immediate successes; industry seemed to really internalize the goal of safer new chemicals. Maintaining confidential business information proved to be a burden to a more effective chemicals program.

Jellinek believes that it is the responsibility of policymakers to be precautionary. He repeatedly questioned his decision as assistant administrator not to pressure Congress for a more workable law. From his perspective, a reformed TSCA should strive to reduce the hurdles on EPA action, and he also thinks it might be worth considering a premarket rather than a premanufacture review.

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