Courtesy of Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate pro Tem Kevin de Leon, California's top toxics regulator now has an independent review panel. It meets tomorrow for the first time. This panel is critically important to reform of the scandal-plagued Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). It's got one good shot at changing the department's culture--and that is what it is going to take to make this department worthy of its name.
The task won't be easy: The panel is supposed to report to the Governor and Legislature on how the DTSC does in improving lax permitting and enforcement, public participation that communities often feel is orchestrated to defuse anger and avoid answering questions, and its utterly broken system of fiscal oversight of the biggest, licensed hazardous waste facilities in the state.
The three panelists are: Senate-appointed attorney Gideon Kracov, who is in private practice and chairs the California State Bar Environmental Law Section, Assembly-appointed toxicologist Arezoo Campbell, from the College of Pharmacy at Western University of Health Sciences, and Governor-appointed Mike Vizzier, former chief of the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health’s Hazardous Materials Division to be the local government management expert on the panel.
By the end of December, panelists are to have established a DTSC Office of Performance, Accountability and Transparency that will function as an internal auditor and ombudsman. The panel will be required to have the department submit a proposal implementing its reform recommendations as part of the January 2016 budget.
This panel is wading into the deep end, and it is going to need help. The quickest way to win the trust of environmental justice communities that make up the majority of communities either home to hazardous waste facilities or built on toxic land is to show that DTSC means business.
• Replace those managers at the top of DTSC that have spent years protecting corporate wallets over public health. Advertise for these jobs nationally and hire people from other states with better approaches to regulating toxics across the board--in soil, water, and air. Set up a public component to the hiring process and require that candidates articulate a vision as part of the interview process.
• Take action to meet the demands of environmental justice communities that have already been made of Director Barbara Lee, but that have not been addressed. Address major hotspots quickly--among them the clean up of homes near Exide, the denial of permits to serial polluters such as chemical recycler Phibro-Tech in Santa Fe Springs, and proper characterization of toxic contamination at development sites such as Ag Park in Riverside County.
• Enforce perfectly good environmental laws that allow tough fining of polluters and that require hazardous waste companies to assure the state they have the money to perform ordered corrective action, to clean up and to close and maintain facilities as a condition of permit approval. Such enforcement is critically important as it funds cleanups.
If this panel does not pull the trigger quickly to send powerful signals to communities that DTSC is going to protect people from toxic harm, public trust will never be restored, and communities will continue to suffer illnesses from learning disabilities to cancer and heart disease. This is a last, critical chance to perform CPR on a failed agency.