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‘Foul-Up’ in State Toxic Plan Seen

Times Staff Writer

Gov. George Deukmejian’s proposal to reorganize regulation of toxic wastes encountered its first serious obstacle Wednesday when top Administration officials acknowledged there may be a “foul-up” in the plan.

Health and Welfare Secretary David Swoap, testifying before an Assembly committee, acknowledged that “there may be two drafting errors” in the plan. But he called on the Legislature to approve the proposal anyway and later adopt separate legislation to make any necessary corrections.

However, Democrats who sit on the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee said the errors could create “major loopholes” in toxic waste enforcement and questioned the Administration’s commitment to correcting the problems.

Deukmejian has proposed creation of a new state Department of Waste Management that would regulate and clean up toxic waste problems now administered by 12 separate state agencies.

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The Legislature has no authority to alter his proposal. But either the Assembly or the Senate can veto it.

Among the issues that surfaced at Wednesday’s committee hearing was whether the state Water Resources Control Board would retain jurisdiction over situations like the contamination of Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in the Central Valley by selenium-laden farm runoff water.

Under questioning from the committee, Jack Wimer, senior deputy to Swoap, acknowledged that “Yes, there is a foul-up and the foul-up is that the law, as written, is not clear enough for all to understand. In our attempt to exempt Kesterson from the new department, we may have in fact exempted Kesterson from the law altogether.”

Members of the committee also questioned whether there are other sections of the plan that would weaken enforcement of water quality standards or the regulation of underground storage of toxic materials.

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Swoap, however, characterized any problems in the plan as nothing more than “possible drafting errors.” And he insisted that the governor has no intention of weakening toxic regulation.

Because the Legislature cannot make any changes in the plan, Swoap asked that any problems be corrected in a separate bill. However, he was unwilling to commit the Administration to correcting the errors before the plan would be adopted.

But some Democrats on the panel indicated they may be unwilling to approve the plan without a written agreement outlining the solution.

“Would you sell your car to someone who gave you the kind of assurance you just gave me: give me the money today and everything’s going to be fine?” Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly (D-Sacramento) asked Swoap. “You’re asking us to approve a proposal that has a major impact on what is probably the No. 1 environmental health issue in the state with those same kind of assurances.”

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The Legislature has until July 15 to decide whether to veto the plan.

Earlier in the day, representatives of four environmentalist groups--the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Consumers Union--called on the Legislature to block the plan because it would weaken environmental protection.

“We can no longer depend on the Administration in Sacramento to do what is right,” Sierra Club spokesman Michael Paparian said. “We must now ask the leadership of the Senate and Assembly to protect the public interest by killing the governor’s toxic reorganization plan.”


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