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Lawmakers Eye Bill, Investigation Of DTSC Following Scathing Report

INSIDE CAL/EPA

Sources say state lawmakers are scheduled to meet with toxics department director Debbie Raphael and other agency officials March 4 to discuss a scathing report recently released by a non-profit group that claims the department has a history of mismanaging hazardous waste and lax enforcement of regulations that puts many low-income communities at risk.

But the department is disputing many accusations in the report, and says it has already launched its own investigation into department matters that will be headed by an external agency.

Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) have called on the Senate Office of Oversight & Outcomes, an entity tasked with overseeing state agencies, to investigate the report’s claims of mismanagement by the department. De León has also introduced at least one “spot” bill that could eventually become a vehicle for addressing recommendations in the watchdog group’s report essentially overhauling the department’s management, sources say.

At issue is a Feb. 21 report released by Consumer Watchdog, the non-profit environmental advocacy group, called Golden Wasteland.  The report claims that the Department of Toxic Substances Control is doing the poorest job among Cal/EPA agencies in terms of enforcing regulations.

The report is based on interviews with members of communities, environmental advocates, legislative experts, private attorneys and prosecutors, the group says. Current and former DTSC staffers were also interviewed for the report and ranged from scientists and engineers to geologists, policy analysts, prosecutors, inspectors and investigators, the group claims.

“DTSC staffers asked that their names not be used,” the report says. “The reasons were many. Many sources for this report are still employed at DTSC and came forward — even at the risk of losing their jobs — because they were so concerned about the failings of the department. Others who have left DTSC fear
that future work — from consulting to new environmental start-up projects — could be jeopardized.”

The report and relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com. See page 22 for details. (Doc ID: 2426084)

The report’s findings allege that DTSC’s bureaucratic culture is “timid and risk-averse, and its officials hide behind a weak and fractured system of environmental regulation and enforcement.”

DTSC relies on out-of-court settlements and levying wrist-slap fines instead of suspending the permits of serial violators of environmental laws, the report alleges. The report claims DTSC tolerates serial violators operating on expired permits for years at a time without firm deadlines for permit renewals.

Top DTSC administrators “play favorites and hamper the staff from performing their environmental duties, including within its Office of Criminal Investigations,” and DTSC “suffers from a bias toward industry encouraged by a revolving door between regulators, lobbyists and lawyers,” according to the report.

In a Feb. 21 letter to DTSC Director Raphael, de León notes that his Senate district includes a large portion of poor communities that are already disproportionately impacted by bad air quality and environmental hazards, and that “these communities cannot afford inconsistent enforcement of rules designed to protect and preserve the basic health and safety of Californians.”

De León acknowledges that Raphael only recently “took the helm” at DTSC and says he wants to meet with Raphael to discuss the report and review DTSC’s enforcement activities, the letter says.

A de León spokesman this week says lawmakers were scheduled to meet with Raphael March 4. De León has also introduced a “spot” bill related to DTSC, SB 812, which could eventually be amended to address some of the problems alleged in the report, the source says.

As currently drafted, SB 812 would increase from 30 days to 60 days the time in which DTSC is required to notify hazardous waste facility applicants whether their applications are complete.

The Senate Office of Oversight & Outcomes, created in 2008 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), will also lead its own investigation based on the report, the de León spokesman says. The office is not a legislative committee and will not hold hearings on the issue, but as created for situations just like the one at DTSC, the spokesman says.

According to its website, the office consists of a team of three veteran journalists and an attorney, who also serves as special counsel to the Senate Rules Committee. The aim of the office is “to be nimble and versatile as we use the skills of investigative reporting to scrutinize state government. Through interviews and research, we gather and analyze information, then pull it together for policymakers,” the website says.

A DTSC spokeswoman says the agency just received the report last week and has not fully reviewed it. DTSC’s initial reading of the report “shows it contains a number of inaccuracies and mischaracterizations,” the spokeswoman says. But the report “does contain some valid issues which the department has been aware of and has already begun to address,” she says.

Earlier this year, DTSC launched an external, independent review of the agency’s permitting program, the spokeswoman says. This review is being conducted by California Personnel Services (CPS), a non-profit California agency that has done similar reviews for private companies, non-profit organizations and government agencies. CPS’s review will include the perspectives of a broad range of stakeholders, including communities from across the state, she says.

The Consumer Watchdog report “comes at a good time in that its concerns and recommendations will be considered as part of that review,” the DTSC spokeswoman adds. “We take seriously our role in protecting the health of Californians and our environment. We will not shy away from identifying areas for improvement and taking any necessary actions.”

A Cal/EPA spokesman says the agency is discussing the report internally.