Brown Criticized For Veto Of Bill To Reform Toxic Substances Agency

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Gov. Jerry Brown's veto of a bill to reform the California Department of Toxic Substances Control is drawing indignation from community groups and state legislators who had pressed for broad changes at the troubled agency.

Legislators said they were deciding whether to reintroduce legislation at year's end. Brown rejected the bill Monday, saying it would delay the department's plans to fix its problems internally.

The bill, SB 812, was intended to address flaws in the agency's oversight of hazardous waste operations, including a growing backlog in renewing facility permits and failure to collect $194 million owed by companies and other parties for cleaning contaminated sites.

Brown acknowledged in a veto message that the department needs more transparency and accountability. Delays with permits over decades have "resulted in an inadequate and unresponsive regulatory program," he said.

The legislation would have set a three-year deadline for issuing permits for hazardous waste facilities, increased public disclosure requirements and established a citizen oversight committee, among other changes.

Two dozen of the department's 118 permits for hazardous waste facilities have expired because they were issued more than 10 years ago. Such facilities are allowed to continue operating, but their permits may lack the most recent safeguards against the release of harmful chemicals.

The department was created more than two decades ago to protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of toxic substances and is charged with enforcing hazardous waste laws.

Community groups and other critics say that in recent years the department has repeatedly failed to protect residents in some of California's most polluted communities. Despite putting in place some reforms, the agency is far from being fixed, they say.

In one case, a battery recycling plant in Vernon accused of threatening the health of more than 100,000 people with its arsenic emissions had been allowed to operate without a full permit for decades.

Brown's veto "raises the question of whether the governor really understands how bad the department has become," said Penny Newman, who heads the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Jurupa Valley.

In his message rejecting the bill, Brown said he would like to work with the bill's author, Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), to change its language.

De León said Tuesday that he had not decided whether to reintroduce legislation and that he planned to speak with Brown to explain why reform is needed urgently.

The department's existing reform plans are inadequate and "are moving at an amazingly glacial pace," De León said. "These vulnerable communities do not have the luxury or the patience to be waiting for a new reorganizational chart."

Brown's veto means that any legislative action is unlikely until next year. State lawmakers cannot introduce new bills until December.

In March, the toxic substances department released a plan to overhaul its hazardous waste permitting and received funds in this year's budget to hire additional staff.

That should allow the department to complete 17 of the permits over the next two years, spokesman Jim Marxen said, more quickly than under the vetoed legislation.

Liza Tucker, with the nonprofit public interest group Consumer Watchdog, called Brown's veto "a slap in the face to California communities most impacted by hazardous waste, and a way to preserve the status quo."

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Twitter: @tonybarboza

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