The underbelly of industry in California is toxic waste, from the arcane chemicals used to manufacture computers to contaminated engine oil left behind after an oil change at a service station. The state has strict rules and regulations on how such waste can be disposed of or recycled – governing storage, transportation and reprocessing to protect air, soil and water. In theory, families should be safe even if a toxic waste producer is within spitting distance of their neighborhood or school.
Yet too many middle- and working-class families in this position are plagued by odors, toxic dust, fiery accidents and worries about their drinking water. State and local governments that are pledged by law to protect them seem to be leaning over backward to protect industries instead. Yet once in a while, an opportunity comes to hold the state to account. One is occurring today, as a new director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control faces confirmation hearings in the state Senate.
Deborah Raphael comes to the job at DTSC with strong environmental and consumer protection credentials, as a pioneer in protection through prevention. She has operated as DTSC interim director for a year since her appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown. She is no doubt familiar with a fragmented system that has repeatedly let toxic polluters off the hook with small fines, years-long "extensions" of expired permits and weak consent agreements that leave violators in charge of policing themselves.
Her confirmation hearing will allow her to affirm that she has a plan of action and the backing of Brown to put protection and enforcement at the top of her priorities. Here are a few examples that illustrate what needs fixing:
• The DTSC repeatedly cited Evergreen Oil, a waste-oil recycler in Newark, for cracked and inadequate waste storage areas, failure to track contaminated petroleum waste both coming in and going out, careless soil contamination and careless omissions in its own inspection system. Yet the DTSC fined Evergreen less than $60,000 under six separate consent agreements between 2006 and 2011. Last year a burst oil pipe triggered a large blaze and acid-tank spill, endangering employees and the neighborhood. The facility has partially reopened over strong neighborhood protests.
• Phibro-Tech, a maker of "specialty chemicals" for the semiconductor industry in Santa Fe Springs, near Los Angeles, has operated for more than 15 years on an expired state toxics-industry permit. DTSC has cited the company repeatedly for illegal storage, spillage and transportation of dangerous chemical waste near residences and a school. Phibro-Tech gained years of delay on the permit renewal, repeatedly revising its plant updates and pleading lack of funds, according to DTSC documents. Waste byproducts include hexavalent chromium (think Erin Brockovich), a host of heavy metals and volatile organic compounds.
• The DTSC shut down Pacific Steel's auto scrap and recycling facility in National City near San Diego in 2002, citing "imminent and substantial endangerment" of nearby residents from chemical and metal contamination including PCBs. It ordered the company to cover and clean up scrap piles. In 2005 the DTSC closed the case. In reality the cleanup was nothing but blue tarps thrown over the waste piles. Only a 2011 investigative report by a San Diego television station triggered more cleanup in recent months.
Raphael will face industry opposition to toughening the DTSC. Simply giving citizens more and faster information about violations, a key demand of activists, will be targeted as exposing "trade secrets."
To be effective, Raphael also needs Brown as an ally in efforts to strengthen the agency. However, Brown's December firing of key oil safety regulators following industry complaints about aggressive enforcement has set a troubling precedent. Brown has shown interest in the state's Green Chemistry Initiative, but this future-oriented effort must not siphon government resources from the neighborhoods under toxic siege today.
The Senate committee conducting today's hearing should insist on a thorough hearing of the department's problems and Raphael's specific plans for fixing them. The legislators should also clearly support neighborhoods under toxic attack and offer their explicit backing of better enforcement – no matter how loudly the industry complains, and even if it will cost money to beef up the DTSC.
Judy Dugan is research director and Doug Heller is executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Consumer Watchdog, with offices in Santa Monica and Washington, D.C.