SACRAMENTO—The head of the state toxics department told a state Senate hearing Wednesday that she is working hard to correct the agency's problems regulating hazardous waste and is seeking increased funding and other changes to beef up key areas.
Director Debbie Raphael told the Senate Environmental Quality Committee that the Department of Toxic Substances Control is seeking $4.5 million in increased funding to fix the state's hazardous waste tracking system, its permitting program and the way it collects money from polluters who have walked away from contaminated land.
Those funding proposals were included in the proposed budget Gov. Jerry Brown submitted to the Legislature earlier this month.
"We can't afford smoke and mirrors in this department anymore," she said, adding that there needs to be "fundamental change."
Raphael testified at an emotional hearing that also featured people from around the state talking about relatives who died of cancer they fear may have been caused by exposure to toxic chemicals from polluting companies that the department has failed to regulate.
The hearing followed a Los Angeles Times investigation last year that found the agency's system for tracking hazardous waste, required by state law, was so flawed that officials could not account for 174,000 tons of hazardous material shipped for disposal in the last five years.
The Times also reported that the agency is often slow to act and ineffectual in its regulation of hazardous waste operations. In one case, Exide Technologies, a battery recycler in Vernon whose lead and arsenic emissions have endangered the health of residents in southeast Los Angeles County, has been smelting batteries for decades with only a temporary permit. Twenty-nine other facilities are operating on expired permits.
"What I've seen is a repeated failure on behalf of the department to protect some of the most vulnerable communities in California," said state Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles). "Poor communities statewide are at risk of being poisoned because the department in charge is not doing its job."
The Senate committee also unanimously approved two proposed laws designed to strengthen the state's regulation of hazardous waste.
One, written by De Leon, would set strict deadlines requiring hazardous waste facilities to renew their permits in a timely fashion.
The other, written by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), would require Exide to get a full permit by 2015 or shut down.
Both proposals now move to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
During more than two hours of testimony, Raphael repeatedly stressed that she has been working tirelessly to fix a department that has been troubled for decades. She said that when she took over the department in 2011, she found it was suffering from "neglect" and "rot."
"I found a department that had a habit of putting off hard decisions," she said.
Several senators praised her for her candor and commitment and urged her to come to them with additional legislative proposals she deemed necessary to fix the department.
Some environmental advocates who traveled to Sacramento for the hearing, however, said they were not as impressed.
"I'm embarrassed, quite frankly, to see how [the department] is operating today ... I'm disgusted," said Penny Newman, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
She was fed up with department officials' talk about fixing their internal processes, she said, because she has seen little change in the communities "where the people are being exposed to these chemicals."