Regulators Jumping Toxic Ship

Senior managers and mid-level workhorse staff are leaving the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) in droves as its director, Barbara Lee, stonewalls the independent review panel created to help lawmakers reform the dysfunctional agency.

Just this week, the agency lost its hazardous waste management program deputy who stayed in the job for barely 18 months. In recent months, its legislative director, chief counsel, site mitigation deputy, civil rights officer, and chief deputy director have either left or been asked to do so.

It's no wonder. In December, Brown appointed as Lee’s chief deputy director a former chief on procurements and contracts from the California Department of Transportation. That's one of the least sensitive agencies to the concerns of environmental justice communities. Nothing in this official’s background qualifies her for the job of knowing how to regulate toxic substances.

This was the very agency that Lee just exempted from having to follow hazardous waste disposal rules that everybody else in the state must. She extended the long-time practice of allowing the agency to rebury dangerous lead-laced soil it digs up under roadways right back underneath them, according to insiders. That’s fine and dandy until one day the land is repurposed for something else--like housing developments.

The DTSC, or perhaps it’s the Governor’s office, appears stubbornly unable, or unwilling, to learn from mistakes like Exide. DTSC's upper managers allowed the lead battery recycler to poison half of east LA with arsenic and lead. Exide operated without a permit for decades while the DTSC ignored, and sometimes endorsed, violations of environmental laws.

Governor Jerry Brown already sent a strong signal that he had no interest in reforming the toxics agency when he vetoed legislation in 2014 authored by Senate pro Tempore Kevin de Leon. SB 812  would have made the agency crack down on toxic polluters by establishing permitting deadlines, public disclosure of environmental violations, a citizen oversight committee, and Bureau of Internal Affairs to vet complaints.

The Independent Review Panel has just issued its second set of recommendations to reform the agency, including on permitting and on the regulation of facilities' hazardous waste that accumulates in neighborhoods. But the panel still can’t get answers from the DTSC on basic questions it asked in January on how much money companies have put up as a condition of operation.
 
The agency supplied the panel with patchy, paltry amounts of money companies have put up for closure, and no information on the existence or amount of money they have put up for ordered corrective action, including cleanups. The agency has also been unable, or unwilling, to provide details of companies, their specific violations, and what categories of severity they fall into. Without that, new laws compelling the agency to come up with a system to evaluate when polluters lose or are denied permits won't be implemented.

Gideon Kracov, the environmental attorney heading up the review panel, says Barbara Lee is refusing to play ball. He told the Senate budget committee last week in despair that the panel’s work won’t accomplish anything without “buy-in” from the agency, its Director, and the Governor. “We cannot just focus on the quantity of the decisions each year involving permitting, financial assurances and transparency, we must also focus on the quality of those decisions…The quality…How do we do that without the Department?”

Toxcis regulators are voting with their feet. Let's hope that the Governor's wish isn't that Barbara Lee is left standing by herself.
 

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