New DTSC Chief’s Vow Against Short-Term Overhaul Spurs Advocates’ Fears

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Barbara Lee, the new director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, is vowing against a need to "change anything or shake anything up in a big way" in the department's management or programs in the short-term, prompting concern from advocates who have urged a major overhaul of DTSC to fix what they claim is a flawed department.

Lee said during a Nov. 18 DTSC staff meeting that she wants to spend the first month or so in her new position meeting with departmental officials, in response to a question by a DTSC staffer about what her agenda will be in her first 30 days. "I'll be putting a lot of time into getting around and meeting everybody," she said. "I really want to reassure you — I don't have an agenda coming in." DTSC staffers "have been doing some great work" over the past six months, after acting director Miriam Ingenito took over from former director Debbie Raphael, Lee said. "So I'm not coming in thinking I have to change anything or shake anything up in a big way."

It is important to get acquainted with DTSC staffers "before I say to you, 'Ah, here's my vision,' because a vision isn't worth a whole lot if it's not grounded well in reality that we're all going to be working on together and collectively on what we set . . . as our goals," Lee said at the meeting, which was webcast.

Lee was previously air pollution control officer at the Northern Sonoma County air district since 1996, where she was also supervising air quality engineer from 1994 to 1996, according to the governor's office. She served as an air quality engineer at the Bay Area air district from 1990 to 1994. She also served as co-chair of Cal/EPA's Environmental Justice Advisory Committee from 2005 to 2007, where she was a member from 2001 to 2007.

Her comments at the staff meeting are prompting a negative reaction from some environmental justice advocates, who already have expressed a mixed reaction to her appointment last month by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). A coalition of advocacy groups had hoped the new director would take immediate actions to overhaul management at the executive office level and key department divisions to bolster the protection of public safety and the environment, especially in low-income communities disproportionately affected by pollution (Inside Cal/EPA, Nov. 7).

Equity advocates during the past several years have criticized DTSC as failing to protect communities from hazardous substances by avoiding adequate enforcement actions against facilities and allowing waste management companies to operate without proper permits, among other reasons, and say Lee's comments may prolong the situation.

"It is a shame that the new DTSC director has come to conclusions without having even started the job," says Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog. "There is no question that this is a department in need of major reform, as evidenced by the number of pieces of legislation introduced in the last legislative session and the continuing media scrutiny of a department that has lost the trust of the public that it is meant to protect."

Consumer Watchdog has for years been highly critical of DTSC's performance, finding in an investigative report issued last year that DTSC's permitting process is severely flawed and biased heavily in favor of industrial facilities. A subsequent, independent state review of the department reached many of the same conclusions.

A coalition of environmental groups earlier this year urged the Brown administration to conduct a national search for the new DTSC director, focusing on those with strong environmental activism backgrounds who are not part of "Cal/EPA circles."

The coalition, including Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE), California Environmental Justice Network, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and Center for Environmental Health, urged Brown to "promptly appoint a strong, vigorous, and committed reformer as her replacement, along with a new senior management team similarly dedicated to reform, with a mandate for a top-to-bottom house-cleaning of this deeply troubled and dysfunctional department."

Ingrid Brostrom, senior attorney with CRPE, criticized Lee's comments in an email statement. "This response is incredibly tone deaf," she said. "The department is falling down and desperately in need for a strong, visionary leader to put this agency back on track. DTSC's permitting, cleanup, and enforcement programs are all in shambles. Leadership positions remain vacant. The Legislature, executive branch, and advocates across the state are all demanding drastic and fundamental changes in the agency to better protect Californians from toxic threats. If Barbara Lee truly believes that she doesn't have to change anything or shake things up, she is clearly not the right person for the job," Brostrom says.

In contrast, an industry source recently praised the governor's pick of Lee. "Seems like a solid appointment," the source said earlier this month. "She has a lot of air experience so it will be interesting to see how she will adapt to the DTSC culture. I think the business side is optimistic. She will get a lot of leeway initially."

David Miller, president of the California Association of Professional Scientists, the union that represents many DTSC staffers, said in an email response this week that the group "looks forward to working with Barbara Lee as the new director of DTSC. We're confident she'll bring fresh ideas to ensure DTSC is doing all it can to protect California communities and our environment."

Lee did not respond to a request for an interview this week.

Inside Cal/EPA – 11/21/2014 , Vol. 25, No. 47

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