Why Does It Take KCBS To Do Top Toxics Regulator's Job?

UPDATE: The KCBS report discussed below inspired swift action, with top DTSC and Los Angeles County Environmental Health Department inspectors descending on the home in question.  Watch the update on the story from KCBS-TV at http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/video/3307537-investigators-confirm-hazardous-waste-findings-near-exide-facility/
 
Last night, CBS TV Los Angeles ran an astonishing story. 
 
Reporter Randy Paige visited homes within two miles of the now-shuttered lead battery recycler Exide. Using an EPA-certified device to instantly measure lead levels in soil or dust, he found children were playing in hazardous waste levels of lead ten times higher or more than the acceptable residential standard. 
 
Dirt along a public sidewalk close to Exide’s entrance had lead levels 28 times higher. Scientists now believe no level of exposure to lead is safe, especially for children. Minute amounts can damage their brains, cause learning disabilities, and other diseases.
 
So why does it take a TV station to do the job of the state’s top toxics regulator, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC)?  Why isn’t DTSC all over every yard measuring like Randy Paige did, and immediately cleaning up hazardous waste that toddlers play in, breathe, and ingest via their hands? 
 
 
Because admitting the scope of this disaster could threaten the DTSC’s very existence.
 
That is why DTSC Director (photo right) Barbara Lee issued a statement to CBS last July that, despite the agency’s test results showing hazardous waste levels of lead in peoples’ yards, there was no public health emergency. In essence, she said that DTSC would not consider this an emergency until people, children, were dropping in the streets from acute lead poisoning.
 
That is not how the system supposed to work. DTSC is tasked with protecting the public and environment from toxic harm. That toxic harm has taken place. You don’t wait for a fire to reach a sleeping baby’s crib before evacuating a house. You don’t wait for children to exhibit damaged IQ before removing the lead in their yards and homes.
 
Exide Technologies is Exhibit A when it comes to DTSC’s incompetence, negligence, and corporate bias. We need hazardous waste recyclers, the thinking goes, so we’ll just turn a blind eye to their pollution. California has some of the toughest environmental laws in the country. But DTSC does not follow them.
 
Hazardous waste companies are supposed to show they have the money to perform ordered fixes, to close their plants safely, and to clean up contamination that threatens people outside their fence lines. DTSC specializes in not making that happen lest these businesses loudly complain to the Governor’s office.
 
When DTSC requires companies to put up the money, it is virtually never enough to clean up contamination. DTSC never made Exide put up more than $10 million for cleaning up its mess and closing its facility. That is Monopoly Money. The tab for a true cleanup around Exide is a minimum $200 million, according to DTSC sources. And Exide wasn’t even on a permit.
 
We testified against the confirmation of DTSC Director Barbara Lee because we believed that she would do nothing to reform the agency. That is exactly what Barbara Lee is doing now--nothing. Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León confirmed Lee despite our objections. What will he do now?
 
What should the state do now? The legislature should immediately appropriate funds to clean up that do not exist. DTSC should be tasked with forcing all the companies that sent spent lead batteries to Exide—from Sears to Pep Boys—to reimburse the state. And the U.S. Attorney that shut down Exide in exchange for suspending criminal prosecution should go back to Exide. He should tell Exide to put up even more money for this cleanup or face consequences for their environmental crimes. 
 
DTSC should be directed to ensure that appropriate amounts of money—real money not Monopoly Money—be set aside by these facilities to close shop and clean up contamination that threatens people as a condition of operation. Ditto for any corrective actions that DTSC orders.
 
If DTSC refuses to follow the law, it’s time for the legislature to shut DTSC down. A regulator that abets damage to the brains of children for the sake of saving polluters money is simply not acceptable.

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