The head of the state’s toxics control agency said Wednesday she has disciplined two employees for using racially derogatory terms in emails, but activists called for a broader probe to determine if there is a cultural problem in the department.
Meanwhile, an Independent Review Committee appointed by lawmakers to overhaul the state Department of Toxic Substances Control said it would review the issues raised by the emails.
In responding to a public record act request, the department found emails between two senior scientists in the agency that used terms including “injun badge,” “crackho hooker,” and “Chop-chop Hop Sing,” according to copies of the emails released Wednesday by the department.
The emails raise serious concerns about an agency that regulates toxic waste sites that are mostly in minority communities, said Penny J. Newman, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
Newman and more than 40 other environmental activists submitted a letter Wednesday to Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers asking for a probe to determine whether racism is widespread in the agency.
“We are concerned that thousands of families across this state may be in harm’s way or forced to live in dangerous situations due in part to the racist attitudes, judgment and actions of DTSC staff,” Newman told the committee.
Barbara A. Lee, the department’s director, told the committee that she acted “quickly and decisively” when the emails were discovered last spring.
“I absolutely do not condone the behavior that those emails uncovered,” Lee told the panel during a public hearing in Sacramento.
The agency asked the state attorney general to conduct a broader investigation in addition to one done internally. Agency officials declined to say whether the probes found additional, inappropriate emails.
“I took appropriate disciplinary action as soon as the investigation was completed,” she added. “I explicitly told staff as part of [an] all-staff meeting, I will not tolerate racism at any time or in any form.”
Newman said the attitudes shown in the emails may help explain why the now-shuttered Exide Technologies plant was able to operate for years in Vernon without a permit despite pollution problems affecting nearby, predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Toxic lead dust has been found at homes and yards near the battery recycling plant.
The emails between two senior scientists at the agency include an exchange about sharing a room on a business trip at a San Francisco hotel. “This one comes with used condoms and needles,” one staffer wrote to the other. The other responded, “Now if you told me we would have use of a manly crackho hooker we would not need those accessories.” The first staffer responds, “You can even use my ‘injun badge’ to shake them down.”
One of those scientists called the other “Hop Sing” in an email asking him to swiftly edit a document. “Chop-chop Hop Sing,” the scientist wrote. He also included a full page photo of an actor who played a Chinese cook on the TV series Bonanza.
In another email, a scientist made fun of an agency Web developer with an Asian name, writing
“Mommy must have had way too many pain killers when she named this guy.”
In another exhange, one scientist emailed: “Yo, Dr. Dumas-Iz u Iz or Iz u ain’t on da done?” to which the other responded “Uz muzt bez ignant.”
Senate President pro tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) called the emails “appalling and inappropriate.”
He said he spoke to Cal EPA Secretary Matthew Rodriquez “and he has assured me the individuals have already been disciplined and that Cal EPA has made sure this is not widespread behavior at DTSC.”
Still, the committee will also review the allegations, Chairman Gideon Kracov told the activists.”This is the first I’ve seen of this letter,” Kracov said during the hearing. “I assure you we will look into this matter.”