Senate panel OKs head of Department of Toxic Substances Control

A state Senate committee has approved Gov. Jerry Brown's choice to lead the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has been plagued by turnover at the highest levels and accusations that it is cozy with industry lobbyists.

The department has had 10 directors in the last 10 years. And a Los Angeles Times investigation showed that the agency knew for years that Exide Technologies was violating environmental laws at a Vernon battery facility before taking steps to stop it.


Several environmental and social justice organizations advocating for greater changes in the department asked the Senate Rules Committee to postpone the confirmation vote on Barbara Lee, who was appointed to the leadership position in December.

Nominees can serve for 12 months without being confirmed by the Legislature.

"Use your power of confirmation to try to get real change," said Dan Hirsch, of the group Committee to Bridge the Gap, at the Wednesday hearing.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said the schedule of the legislative session would not allow for delaying the vote.

During the hearing, De León asked Lee about the department's culture and about technical matters such as hazardous waste permitting. He said the agency needed a "provocateur" and a "disrupter."

"The public morale and confidence in this department ... is as low as it can get," De León said. "I'm not sure if it could be lower than it is right now."

The department "is in need of major structural reform," he said. "Superficial changes won't suffice."

Lee said she was up to the task.

"I agree with you that change does need to happen," Lee said. "I also want it to be durable change."