New Report Shows Regulators Not Protecting Public From Toxic Harm

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Los Angeles, CA — California has some of the toughest environmental laws in the nation, and some of the weakest enforcement, according to a new report by leading California consumer group, Consumer Watchdog. The group documented how the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has consistently failed to protect communities and the environment from the environmental and health harms posed by toxic waste in the state’s soil, water, and air. The group wrote the governor calling for the removal of top DTSC managers.

The report’s major findings include: The DTSC lets hazardous waste polluters operate on expired permits for years at a time, cuts repeated deals out of court with polluters, levies ineffective fines, fails to develop and refer cases for prosecution, and refuses to revoke the permits of serial violators of environmental laws.
The report, Golden Wasteland, is available here:

“The DTSC sits on its hands while hazardous waste management companies and large-scale generators of hazardous waste poison communities,” wrote consumer advocate Liza Tucker, author of the new report, to Governor Brown and DTSC Director Debbie Raphael. “Families are threatened and people are dying. But there’s no cop on the beat to turn to.”

The letter is available here:

The DTSC, a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency, licenses 117 facilities to manage hazardous waste. It regulates about 900 registered businesses that transport it. It also oversees the cleanup of some 1,000 hazardous substance release sites, and monitors the long-term maintenance of about 200 sites where cleanup is complete. Based on interviews with DTSC staff, former and present, affected community members from cases around the state, legislative experts, consultants, advocates, private attorneys, and prosecutors, the report finds that the enforcement culture at the DTSC is spineless and the department is held captive by the industry it regulates.

Among the California Environmental Protection Agency’s boards, departments, and divisions, the DTSC does the poorest job. For example, the DTSC collected far less in fines than the California Air Resources Board between 2007 and 2010, even though it has far broader responsibilities. Over these three years, DTSC’s penalties fell by half to $2.2 million, while the California Air Resources Board collected between $9 and $20 million each fiscal year in the same time period. The number of cases DTSC refers for public prosecution dropped from 55 cases in 2007 to just a single one in 2012.

The Consumer Watchdog report finds:

  • The DTSC repeatedly cuts deals out of court, away from the public eye, with serial violators of environmental laws, and regularly negotiates fines down so they become simply a cost of doing business.
  • The DTSC lets companies function on expired permits for up to 16 years at a time.
  • The DTSC can deny, revoke, or suspend a permit where there is a pattern of non-compliance with laws on hazardous wastes, materials, and substances, or where a company poses a threat to public health.  It consistently refuses to use these powers.
  • The DTSC often awards permits without proper environmental review.
  • The DTSC has not revoked the permit of a serial violator of environmental laws in more than 15 years.
  • The DTSC grants exceptions to the rules without public input, saving companies money but risking public health.
  • The DTSC suffers from a bias toward industry encouraged by a revolving door between regulators, lobbyists, and lawyers.

The Consumer Watchdog report recommends:

  • Top managers at the DTSC be replaced.
  • The Auditor General or State Controller conduct a full audit of the DTSC’s finances.
  • Serial environmental violators be debarred for state and federal funds and contracts.
  • DTSC Enforcement be considered a budgetary program with specific funds tied to it in the annual budget.
  • The DTSC Office of Criminal Investigations become a core program and ultimately be moved to the California EPA.
  • An Independent Office of Environmental Inspector General be created that reports to the Legislature.

The report concludes that the DTSC is not living up to its central mission of protecting the environment and public from toxic harm. In order to do this, the DTSC must be overhauled. Consumer Watchdog called on DTSC Director Debbie Raphael to replace top managers, enforce existing laws, support enforcement efforts, direct staff to apply maximum fines and penalties, and develop and refer cases for public prosecution. The department should exercise existing authority to deny or revoke the permits of serial violators of environmental laws.

“Californians understand the connection between illness and toxic chemicals. The DTSC exists to protect them. If it chooses not to, it risks becoming obsolete,” said Tucker.

Click here to read the complete chronology of Consumer Watchdog’s interactions with the DTSC about environmental issues.

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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