California Toxics Agency Fails to Collect from Polluters

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The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has prioritized cleanup over reimbursement, agency memo says. Toxics director says collection efforts are being stepped up.

The state agency responsible for protecting Californians from toxic contamination has spent more than $145 million over the last 25 years cleaning up hazardous waste sites but failed to collect reimbursement from the companies responsible for the pollution, according to information provided by the agency Thursday.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control has never tried to collect more than $100 million in cleanup costs from polluters, an agency memo shows. In addition, the department has billed companies $45 million for cleanup costs that they have not paid, Director Debbie Raphael said.

Officials said the problem, which was reported in the Sacramento Bee on Thursday, arose because the agency has for years "prioritized the cleanup of contaminated properties over the process of pursuing responsible parties for reimbursement."

The 1,825 sites include large operations, such as Contra Costa County-based Chemical & Pigment, which went bankrupt in 1998 and left a site that has cost $9.4 million so far to clean up, as well as small mom-and-pop operations, such as dry cleaners that poured solvents down the drain, officials said. Many of the amounts owed are less than $1,000.

In some cases, officials said, toxics investigators knew that the companies did not have the ability to pay and so did not prioritize collection.

But other companies on the list include Chevron, which owes $53,000, and PG&E, which owes about $85,000.

Raphael, who took over the department two years ago, said she was committed to "making every effort to collect past costs and create an internal system that ensures this kind of backlog never happens again." She said the department has instituted a new billing procedure that requires companies to pay up sooner and has stepped up collection efforts.

Some of the department's critics were not satisfied.

Liza Tucker of the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog called for a comprehensive financial audit of the department.

"It's outrageous that companies like Chevron, chemical companies, and junkyards didn't get billed for cleanups and regulators stuck Californians with the tab," she said.

Many large hazardous waste facilities have posted money for cleanup in the event of closure but Tucker and others say that amount isn't nearly enough to cover the true costs.

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