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Poor Plan on Toxics

The Deukmejian Administration has tried to streamline and strengthen management of hazardous waste with a complex reorganization plan. The result could produce an additional hazard, threatening whatever sound regulation already exists.

Either chamber of the Legislature may veto, but not change, the governor’s proposed new Department of Waste Management if it acts within 60 days. For good measure, both Senate and Assembly should say nothing doing.

The plan seeks to eliminate duplication among state agencies that deal with toxic waste, creating one cabinet-level department with direct accountability to the governor. It looks good on paper. The plan also creates a California Waste Commission and three regional boards to advise the department, issue regulations and hear appeals. That, too, looks all right, although critics argue that the conflict-of-interest provisions are not as strong as those that apply to the existing state and regional water boards.

The plan also leaves pesticide regulation within the Department of Food and Agriculture, always a controversial position because the level of enforcement depends entirely on who is in charge at that department, but at least the plan would make the situation no worse.

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But the reorganization also would sharply curtail the powers of the State Water Resources Control Board and provisions of the Toxic Pits Control Act and Underground Storage Tank Act. That, alone, justifies rejection of the whole plan.

The state board, an independent body, monitors water quality and water rights. The Porter-Cologne Act of 1969, which helps guide state water policy, considers those two functions inseparable. In other words, government is obligated to protect not only the right of Californians to water but the right to clean water but the governor’s plan would take regulation of water quality away from the state board in cases involving hazardous wastes.

Earlier this year, the water resources board ordered the federal Bureau of Reclamation to clean up the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, heavily polluted with selenium from the runoff from agricultural irrigation. Critics say that because of the way the governor’s plan deals with agricultural drainage, the board could not act as forcefully in similar future situations. We agree.

It is unclear from the reorganization plan the degree to which certain other pits that store hazardous waste, including those operated by oil refineries and utilities, would be subject to regulation.

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Refineries, it should be noted, were vigorous opponents last year of the Toxic Pits Control Act. Under that act, ponds that hold wastes such as solvents or other petroleum byproducts now must be lined and monitored for leakage of hazardous substances. The reorganization plan weakens the authority for such regulation; it also greatly weakens cleanup authority over leaking underground gasoline tanks.

Sacramento needs a better coordinated, more efficient regulatory structure to deal with hazardous waste. But the governor’s plan needs work and the Legislature should send it back and ask him to try again.


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