Environmentalists and civil rights advocates are charging that recent resignations by a host of top executives and managers at the toxics department reflects continuing dysfunction at the embattled agency and a lack of support for director Barbara Lee.
"Senior managers and mid-level workhorse staff are leaving the Department of Toxic Substances Control in droves as its director, Barbara Lee, stonewalls the independent review panel created to help lawmakers reform the dysfunctional agency," argues Liza Tucker, an activist with Consumer Watchdog, in an April 28 blog post.
A DTSC spokesman declined to directly respond to questions about the advocates' claims that the departures reflect dysfunction and unease within the department.
But the spokesman confirms that the department currently has four vacancies on its 14-member executive team due to recent departures, including the deputy director of the brownfields and environmental restoration program; the chief counsel for the Office of Legal Affairs; the legislative director for the Office of Legislation; and the deputy director for the hazardous waste management program.
Elise Rothschild, the hazardous waste management program deputy director, is leaving DTSC at the end of this week, after having worked in the position for only 16 months, according to the spokesman.
The other executives who recently resigned from the department are Stewart Black, deputy director of the brownfields and environmental restoration program, who worked at DTSC for three years and nine months; Reed Sato, chief counsel for the Office of Legal Affairs, who worked at DTSC for four years and three months; and Josh Tooker, legislative director for the Office of Legislation, who worked at DTSC for three years and five months, the spokesman says.
Black left DTSC in November 2015; Sato left in January 2016; and Tooker resigned last month, according to the spokesman.
Last month, Litiana Patino received an internal promotion to chief of the Office of Civil Rights. The department is currently "actively recruiting" to fill the executive vacancies, the spokesman adds.
Advocates have been critical of recent appointments by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to DTSC and say they fear that more poor selections will be made.
For example, Tucker and other advocates faulted the administration in December for appointing top state transportation department official Francesca Negri as the new chief deputy director of DTSC, claiming she lacks experience on hazardous waste and equity matters that are major issues for DTSC (Inside Cal/EPA, Dec. 25).
"Appointing people from CalTrans and the High Speed Rail Authority is a disservice to Californians suffering from toxic harm," Tucker argues in her recent blog. "These people, however well-intentioned, know nothing about the subject of toxics and hazardous waste, let alone how it should be regulated. CalTrans is one of the worst transgressors when it comes to environmental justice communities. The question is who wants it this way."
A second equity advocate says it would not be surprising if the recent departures by executive staff "reflects dissatisfaction with the current sad state of affairs at the agency, which I think is reflected in continuing concerns in the low-income communities of color that are impacted by hazardous waste."
Tucker and others also fear that DTSC and administration officials will essentially ignore a slew of recommendations to improve multiple programs and activities at the department being made by the independent review panel (IRP), a three-person body required by 2015 legislation to serve as a watchdog and advisory group for the Legislature.
The IRP was created by legislation within the state's 2015-16 fiscal year budget approved last June. The panel was spurred in response to frustration among lawmakers and environmentalists over DTSC's permitting and enforcement backlogs and failure to meet legislative mandates in general to protect the public and environment from hazardous substances. The panel is required to oversee the department's activities and report to the Legislature and governor, every 90 days, on four program areas: permitting, enforcement, public engagement and fiscal management.
The IRP recently issued a second set of recommendations to reform the agency, including on permitting and on the regulation of facilities' hazardous waste, Tucker notes in her blog. "But the panel still can't get answers from the DTSC on basic questions it asked in January on how much money companies have put up as a condition of operation," she claims.
DTSC supplied the panel with "patchy, paltry amounts of money companies have put up for closure, and no information on the existence or amount of money they have put up for ordered corrective action, including cleanups," Tucker adds. "The agency has also been unable, or unwilling, to provide details of companies, their specific violations, and what categories of severity they fall into. Without that, new laws compelling the agency to come up with a system to evaluate when polluters lose or are denied permits won't be implemented."
Minority employees within DTSC have in recent months also raised a number of complaints about the department's management and environment.
For example, environmental justice advocates released in December what they called racist emails between two staffers over the last few years. The advocates said that the emails showed an urgent need for the Brown administration and Legislature to overhaul the department to address what they call an "engrained racial bias" at DTSC.
In response, Lee said in March that she is creating a special employee panel featuring all levels of staff to address the reports of perceived racism and cultural insensitivity among some workers, in an effort she hopes will ultimately lead to personnel embracing the "richness and the strength" of the department's diversity (Inside Cal/EPA, March 11).
Earlier this year, a small group of minority employees at DTSC charged in a letter to Cal/EPA Secretary Matt Rodriquez that they are being discriminated against by management and are being paid less than their peers, creating a new battle in an ongoing dispute over employee salaries and duties within the department (Inside Cal/EPA, March 4).
The IRP, in addition to a number of other tasks, is looking into the various charges by the minority employees, according to sources.
The DTSC spokesman responds in an email comment that the department "has made significant strides toward enhancing its programs that protect communities. The governor and the Legislature have provided us with the funding needed to make improvements in our cost-recovery efforts, our Permitting and Safer Consumer Products programs, and in other programs."