Toxics Regulators Review ‘No Action’ Decisions By Scientists In Email Scandal

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The state Department of Toxic Substances Control is reviewing a number of its decisions to take no further action regarding potential environmental contamination, with a specific focus on cases involving two senior agency scientists who had exchanged dozens of racially-charged emails.

Toxic Substances Control is reviewing "no further action" decisions made over the past five years involving William Bosan, a senior toxicologist, and Theo Johnson, a senior geologist. An independent oversight panel recommended the review in January. 

The agency released the emails between the two men last fall in response to a public records request. The emails included the terms "crackho hooker" and "injun badge" in referring to the scientists' co-workers. In one email, Bosan wrote about an Asian colleague with an English first name: "How the hell do you get Mabel from Tsing?"

The emails enraged environmental activists. They argued that the communications betrayed a systemic bias against communities of color facing possible toxic contamination, and pushed for an investigation into the past ten years' worth of "no further action" decisions involving the two men. 

Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee said the ten-year time period was not feasible.

The agency has not yet responded to a request for a list of which cases are under review.

Toxic Substances Control's Independent Review Panel recommended that the agency release the results of its review to the public by June 1. Spokeswoman Lori-Abbott Dutton said Toxic Substances Control has not completed the reassessment, but will make its findings public once it finishes.

Even before the Review Panel called for the five-year review, Lee had "launched an internal investigation late last year to take a broad look at decisions made by Mr. Bosan and Mr. Johnson, including [no further action decisions]," said Dutton.

Toxic Substance Control officials said in December that the two men were disciplined but kept on staff. The Attorney General’s office also investigated the exchanges; it has not released the results of its review.

"No further action" determinations are made after the agency reviews information about possible environmental contamination and decides whether more testing or cleanup is necessary.

While welcoming the review of the two scientists' decisions, some activists are pushing for more.

Toxic Substances Control "should set aside the No Further Actions and assign other scientists to redo the analysis," Liza Tucker, who is tracking this issue for Consumer Watchdog, said via email.

"That is the only way to see if the No Further Actions were justified in the first place," she said.

Toxic Substances Control has come under fire in recent years from activists who have accused it of bungling the permitting process that allowed Exide Technologies, the former battery recycling plant in Vernon, to operate for decades on a temporary permit. It has also faced criticism from community members about the slow pace of the lead cleanup around the plant.

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