Outside panel will oversee California's troubled toxic waste regulator

Three-member independent panel will oversee California's troubled Department of Toxic Substances Control

The budget signed this week by Gov. Jerry Brown establishes an independent panel to oversee the California Department of Toxic Substances Control after a series of shortcomings in its regulation of hazardous waste operations and cleanups across the state.

The three-person review panel will monitor the department’s progress in improving its permitting, enforcement, fiscal management and public outreach and will report back to the governor and Legislature every 90 days. The members will include a community representative, a scientist with expertise in toxic materials and a local government expert.

The increased oversight comes in response to an array of problems at the department tasked with enforcing hazardous waste laws and protecting people and the environment from toxic chemicals. Among the flaws revealed in recent years are lackluster enforcement and oversight of hazardous waste operations, a backlog of expired facility permits and a failure to collect $194 million the state is owed by companies and other parties for cleaning contaminated sites.

In one case, a battery recycling plant in Vernon accused of threatening the health of more than 100,000 people across southeast Los Angeles County with its arsenic emissions was allowed to operate for decades without a full permit, despite a long history of environmental infractions.

Gov. Brown last year vetoed legislation that would have imposed broader reforms to the department. The decision enraged community groups, who say the department has repeatedly failed to protect people in some of California's most polluted neighborhoods and have demanded stricter oversight and accountability. 

Gladys Limón, an attorney for the environmental justice group Communities for a Better Environment, welcomed the new oversight panel as a critical first step, but said further changes are needed.

“This department needs strong reform, meaningful oversight and assistance to carry out its legal mandate to protect the public's health and safety from hazardous waste polluters,” she said.

Two years ago, the toxic substances department initiated a series of internal reforms. Director Barbara Lee, who was appointed last fall, has acknowledged that the department performed poorly in the past and has vowed to fix its problems.

The creation of the oversight panel was one of several changes to the toxic substances department tucked into the budget Brown signed Wednesday. Members will be appointed by the state Assembly Speaker, the Senate Rules Committee and the governor.

The budget increases the department's funding by $13 million and adds dozens of new positions that will focus on improving its permitting and enforcement of hazardous waste operations.

Some of the additional funds will pay for oversight of a lengthy cleanup of the shuttered Exide plant and nearby homes contaminated by its lead emissions. In March, Exide agreed to permanently close, demolish and clean up pollution from its Vernon facility to avoid prosecution under a deal with the U.S. attorney’s office.

The budget also formalizes a new assistant director for environmental justice appointed last month as part of the toxic substances department’s reform efforts.

Ana Mascareñas, a former policy and communications director at the advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, will serve as ombudsman and coordinate the department's outreach to disadvantaged communities near hazardous waste operations.

For more environment news, follow me @tonybarboza

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