Accused of Ignoring Widespread Contamination, Top Toxics Regulator's Future Questioned

The state’s top toxics regulator, Barbara Lee, comes up for Senate confirmation this week in the wake of a CBS News story on how much more widespread lead contamination is around the now-closed Exide facility in East Los Angeles and that it exposes vulnerable children to dangerously high levels of lead.
Lee, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 as the Director of the scandal-plagued Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), has minimized and ignored this development. There are also questions about her actions regarding the facility's closure. Consumer Watchdog opposes her reappointment, scheduled to be heard July 15 in the state Senate Rules Committee. 
According to CBS Los Angeles, under Lee’s stewardship, the DTSC refuses to inform the vast majority of residents of Boyle Heights and East LA of the toxic levels in the three-mile radius of the lead battery recycler. It has also declined to fix the problem, though DTSC has had test results confirming the contamination since April.  DTSC ordered Exide to put up money to clean up a far smaller area last year. 
“No question that children are at risk and significantly so,” John Froines, a leading UCLA toxicology expert told the news station. 

Federal prosecutors closed Exide in March after decades of lax oversight and neighborhood complaints. Exide admitted to environmental felonies, and agreed to shut down and cleanup in order to avoid criminal prosecution. Records show that the plant was allowed to operate despite decades of polluting soil and groundwater and contaminating thousands of homes in Vernon, Boyle Heights and Maywood. 
Lee told a Senate Oversight Committee on March 12th that she had informed Exide that it was being denied a permit Feb. 26, effectively closing it, before the U.S. Attorney for the Central District announced its decision—on March 12. Consumer Watchdog noted several inconsistencies in her statements and the Department’s actions.
Though Lee maintained at the hearing that she coordinated with other regulators on the Exide case, an Exide hearing before air regulators on March 6th indicates that  South Coast Air Quality Management District officials and Exide managers believed that the plant planned to meet its regulatory obligations and stay open, though Lee claims to have notified Exide of permit denial two weeks earlier.  In addition, federal prosecutors customarily coordinate with state regulators before settling cases. If Lee had been serious about closing down Exide, it’s unlikely that the U.S. Attorney would have done the job for her.
Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Lee as Director of the Department last year in the wake of the resignation of its former Director. In “Golden Wasteland,” a six-month investigation, Consumer Watchdog exposed how DTSC managers cozied up to polluters, how top officials invested in companies they permit, and how serial polluters were given only wrist slap fines and never lost or were denied permits.  
The report, which demonstrated that no regulators were ever held accountable, prompted state hearings, reform legislation and the ouster of several top DTSC officials, including its former Director.  
In a subsequent report, "Inside Job," Consumer Watchdog exposed how a revolving door of former regulators and staffers of the governor's now represent Boeing, which is resisting the full cleanup of a partial nuclear meltdown site in Simi Hills. The report documented how well-heeled fixers derailed a full cleanup through cozy relationships with DTSC officials.
In the wake of the former Director’s resignation, groups identified in the report allied with others to demand that the governor appoint a director committed to protecting public health against toxic harm, willing to house clean the Department of regulators allied with polluters, and to uphold the state’s tough environmental laws. They urged the governor to form a search committee and interview candidates from a national pool who would describe a vision for the department before being selected for appointment. Brown appointed Lee, an air regulator from a small air district with no knowledge of hazardous substances and their regulation.  
Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter opposing Lee's reappointment here:
Read “Golden Wasteland” here
Read “Inside Job” here

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