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State’s Toxic Cleanup Gets Passing Grade : But Audit Finds Incomplete Data on Governor’s High-Priority Program

Times Staff Writer

More than 100 toxic waste sites have been cleaned up during Gov. George Deukmejian’s Administration, but in some cases it is difficult to determine how well the job has been done, a special state audit has concluded.

The audit, made public on Friday, was conducted by the Department of Health Services, which oversees the cleanups, in response to allegedly inaccurate reports about the Administration’s toxic waste dumps record that were released by Deukmejian and challenged by critics.

The auditors, basing their study on a detailed analysis of department records, found that 125 sites had been cleaned up since March, 1980. Of those, 112 were carried out since Deukmejian took office.

Room for Improvement

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In releasing the report, Health Services Director Kenneth Kizer said he is pleased that the findings generally verify Deukmejian’s earlier claims. But Kizer conceded that the department’s Toxics Substances Control Division “could improve” its procedures for documenting cleanups.

This was a reference to a major finding of the audit team that in 42 of the toxic sites studied, important information on the results of the cleanup either was omitted from department files or was inadequate. In some of those cases, the team was unable to locate state employees who supervised the cleanups to verify that the job was completed properly.

The auditors were generally critical of the department’s procedures, saying that information on cleanups varied widely between field offices and that there was no standard method for documenting the results.

Bookkeeping Problem

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Steven A. Merksamer, Deukmejian’s chief of staff, however, downplayed the criticism, saying that the problems were in bookkeeping and “not because the work was not done.”

The toxic cleanup issue has been a particularly sensitive political one for Deukmejian. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a potential Democratic candidate for governor next year, repeatedly has accused Deukmejian of botching cleanup jobs at several Los Angeles toxic waste sites.

Deukmejian replied that the city of Los Angeles was at fault in those cases and Bradley “doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

The governor has made it a centerpiece of his Administration by declaring on several occasions that toxic waste is the most important environmental concern of the decade. He is in the process of trying to sell a major toxic waste reorganization plan to the Legislature.

Claiming the Credit

The dispute over the Deukmejian record arose when the governor several months ago publicly claimed credit for cleaning up 100 toxic waste sites and contrasted that with statements that only 13 sites were cleaned up under former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Criticism by several environmental groups and Democratic legislators prompted Deukmejian to release a list of cleanup projects compiled by health services officials. But it later was found to contain many errors, including cases in which sites were listed more than once.

Some critics also said that in a number of cases, local or federal officials were responsible for cleanups for which Deukmejian had taken credit.

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The controversy prompted the governor to call for the internal audit.

Major Cleanup Role

The audit indicates that the state had a major role in cleanup in 80 of the 125 sites. In 30 of the cases, the state’s involvement was described as “intermittent” and in another 15 the state’s role consisted of “correspondence or verbal exchanges” with site owners or other government agencies.

Merksamer said the state need not carry out the actual cleanup in order to take credit. “In essence,” Merksamer said, “the role of the state health department is to protect the public health by ensuring the hazardous waste sites are cleaned up. This does not mean that it is the role of the health department to actually go out and physically do the work itself.”

Some environmental groups withheld comment Friday until they can review the report. But David Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund said the problems uncovered in the audit show poor management of the toxic waste program.

Robert Feraru, an aide to Sen. John Garamendi who raised much of the criticism over the governor’s record, said the report is more evidence that Deukmejian is “overly concerned with generating a favorable comparison with the previous Administration. It’s time we got on with the critical job of cleanup in California, regardless of who gets the credit.”


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