Democracy At Work

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When the confirmation of California’s top toxics regulator was over, Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon addressed the audience: “You saw democracy working…” But was this really democracy at work?

The overwhelming majority of those in the room did not support the confirmation of Ms. Barbara Lee, a former air regulator with no knowledge of hazardous substances from Northern Sonoma County, which has no air pollution problem, as Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control on July 15, 2015. 

Just days before, some 50 groups representing communities polluted with hazardous waste, had written the Senate and Ms. Lee a letter stating that, although she had kindly met with them, she had not fulfilled a single request of theirs to punish polluters, properly characterize the toxics making people sick, or fully clean up communities that are home to hazardous waste polluters or the pollution they have left behind. 

A gaggle of mainly middle-aged white guys in suits and ties that don’t live amidst pollution—either former colleagues of Ms. Lee’s or representatives of big, polluting corporations, enthusiastically supported Ms. Lee at the mic. But the overwhelming majority of people who took the mic at the hearing—Latino, black, white, old, young and in between, all urged the Senate to put off her confirmation so that she could come back in the Fall and be measured by her actions, not her words. 

Her record certainly wasn’t justification for confirmation. In the last eight months, Ms. Lee had done nothing to reform an agency that is too cozy with polluters, ignores their gifts to the most vulnerable of cancer, asthma, learning disabilities, heart and kidney disease, rubberstamps their permits, and levies wrist slap fines that are just a cost of doing business. 

Instead, she has demonstrated bad judgment—protecting some of the upper and mid-level staffers that routinely allow polluters to get away with murder, rather than replacing them with civil servants who put protection of the public first. 

She has declined to use the “hammer” in her “tool box” as one Senator pressed her to promise, to revoke the permits of serial polluters. Nor has she applied maximum fines, or forced polluters to put up the money to fix their operations and to close them safely, as state law requires. 

She has not honored previous state commitments to fully clean up the site of a partial nuclear meltdown at the former Santa Susana Field Lab in Simi Hills, whose land is largely owned by Boeing. 

She has not acknowledged that it is illegal in California to dispose of low-level radioactive waste at facilities that don't hold licenses for it—like the Buttonwillow hazardous waste dump west of Bakersfield located in an environmental justice community.

In the wake of CBS TV revelations that very high levels of lead contamination from the now-shuttered Exide lead battery recycling facility extends much farther into East LA communities than anyone knew, she hid from public view. She has had the results from soil testing since April, but had not notified all residents in the expanded toxicity zone, or announced a clean up plan.

Instead, she issued a statement saying that levels of lead found in the blood of tested residents essentially had to be so high that they were dying of acute lead poisoning before DTSC would lift a finger.

Nevertheless, she was confirmed unanimously. Senator de Leon minimized the opposition, calling those against her confirmation that day neutral “tweeners,” not quite sure of what they thought. In truth, residents from environmental justice communities and their advocates had a very clear, and far from neutral, position—to hold over the nomination until DTSC addresses the ongoing and real harm to those living near toxic sites. 

Lee was confirmed because this was the path of least resistance. Of course lawmakers know that DTSC is profoundly dysfunctional. But rejecting every candidate to head it until Governor Jerry Brown appoints a real reformer with the relevant knowledge and a proven track record proved too inconvenient. The Senate was going out for summer break. Then there would be the “chaos” of just four weeks to approve thousands of bills in September before going out for the year. So much to do, so little time.

In the face of de Leon’s threat to wipe out the DTSC’s budget if Lee did not reform the agency, she promised to clean up. But promises are easily forgotten once the confirmation vote is over. The Californians in that hearing room needed the Senate to act to break the status quo, not to hear more promises. Instead, the will of the majority was thwarted, a far cry from democracy at work.

Barbara Lee’s record:

CBS TV revelations:

Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, following everything from oil and gas to the regulation of toxic substances in the state of California. She comes to us from Marketplace, the largest U.S. broadcast show on business and economics heard by ten million listeners each week on 400 radio stations. Liza worked at this public radio show for a decade, first as Commentary Editor and then as Senior Editor for both Washington and Sustainability News.

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