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Scathing Audit Of DTSC Permitting May Lead To 2014 Legislative Reforms

INSIDE CAL/EPA

A recently unveiled independent audit that finds multiple shortcomings with the toxics department's permitting program may lead to legislation next year requiring major reforms, sources say. The report, commissioned by the department and conducted by an outside firm, found that agency staff have conflicting views about how to permit facilities, leaving the system open to manipulation.

Environmentalists and others are calling on the department to set stronger permitting standards, clarify processes and stop accommodating permittees.

Department officials say they are planning to issue a formal response to the report next month.

The report by Cooperative Personnel Services, an outside consulting firm, aims to provide an unbiased view of the Department of Toxic Substances Control's permitting program, DTSC says. The firm analyzed a 10-month period to gauge the effectiveness of DTSC policies and procedures, and to find opportunities for improvement.

The 115-page report, "Permitting Process Review and Analysis," makes a number of specific findings and recommendations that will now be reviewed by program managers, DTSC says.

The report says there has been significant dissatisfaction with the performance of the DTSC permitting office, particularly with the cost and length of time required to complete the permit process, as well as a perception that the office does not deny or revoke permits as often as it should to address community concerns.

The report says stakeholders interviewed for the study highlighted the following concerns: the need to create clear and objective criteria for making permit decisions that are based on valid standards of performance and risk; the need for a clear standard for violations that would lead to a denial or revocation; and the need for the department to identify and measure permit processing timelines. The report is available on InsideEPA.com. (Doc ID: 2450708)

An environmentalist says the report shows that DTSC Director Debbie Raphael and other agency officials "need to make it clear that the purpose of permitting is to set clear standards that protect public health and the environment, not to accommodate the permittees. Then they need to enforce those standards. This will require some change of the department's culture. Supervisors need to back up their staff when they are pressured by lobbyists and consultants for permittees."

The administration and Legislature need to provide DTSC the resources it needs to do its job, provide oversight to make sure DTSC is carrying out the needed changes, and possibly pass clarifying legislation, the source says. "I think there may be some legislation on this next year. But first DTSC needs to get its own act together, and it can start by following the process recommendations in the report."

In terms of what potential 2014 legislation may entail, the source says "nothing specific [yet], but I think enforcement is one big issue."

Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has been critical of DTSC, says this week that the study confirms a previous report by Consumer Watchdog finding that the permitting process is flawed. "Permits are written without the history of a company's violations in mind, without taking into account what needs to be done in terms of enforcement to make sure a company keeps driving on its side of the road," she argues.

DTSC in a statement on its website says it will review the report and provide a response to the findings and recommendations. These will be posted on the agency's website in November and will be discussed at a Dec. 16 public meeting, DTSC says.