Toxics Regulator’s Negligence Leaves Californians Paying For Exide Cleanup

Governor Jerry Brown’s announcement that the state will spend $176.6 million to clean up a wide swath of East Los Angeles in the wake of Exide Technologies’ decades-long lead contamination is a major victory for the people who live near the shuttered lead battery recycler.

Brown declared a state of emergency at Porter Ranch, where a giant natural gas blowout was emitting one quarter of the state’s greenhouse gases, but East LA, coated with lead and arsenic from the shuttered lead battery recycler, never got the same treatment. In the Tale of Two Cities – Porter Ranch and East LA - East LA is no longer forgotten. Brown’s decision to spend $176.6 million to clean up East LA means that all Californians will be treated equally when it comes to protection from deadly toxics.

But that doesn’t mean that the equal treatment should also extend to California taxpayers for shouldering the bill. The state says that it will vigorously pursue Exide for the money, and also any other responsible parties. But it will be a tough legal slog, and the fault lies at the feet of our top toxics regulator, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

Under California law, the DTSC is supposed to make hazardous waste companies put up the money to fix their operations and clean up their pollution. And they are supposed to make them set aside the money to safely close and maintain their operations for decades to come. But the DTSC is notorious for virtually never requiring companies to put up the money to clean up as a condition of their permit, and consistently lowballs the true cost of closing a facility safely and securing it forever. It is time for the state to hire independent experts to review the true costs of cleaning up pollution under refineries, in aquifers and in soil around schools and housing developments.

The carefully worded announcement from the state Department of Finance says that the $176.6 million appropriation “will be supported by a loan from the general fund.” If the state is really serious, that means that the DTSC will need to pay that money back. The question is, how?

We can start with allowing committed DTSC regulators to enforce the state’s hazardous waste laws. Collecting heavy fines in cases of egregious serial pollution will help replenish the coffers that DTSC uses to clean up so-called “orphan” sites where companies long ago folded and skipped town but left their pollution behind. The DTSC needs to hire more criminal investigators and field staff to protect local communities. 

But first we need a public investigation into what went wrong at DTSC when it came to their misregulation of Exide. How did DTSC allow Exide to get away with what federal authorities said were environmental crimes? Putting such a huge amount of money in the hands of a dysfunctional regulator will require state oversight as to its spending on clean up. If DTSC fails to collect the money from Exide and other companies that used its services, it is time to disband the DTSC and dole out its functions to other environmental regulators that may be more adept at their jobs. 

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