Gov. George Deukmejian’s plan to create a new agency to clean up toxic wastes cleared a crucial legislative hurdle Tuesday--paving the way for final passage and a hard-fought political victory for the governor.
After hours of wrangling over possible amendments, including a last-minute flurry of changes proposed by the regulated industries, a Senate-Assembly conference committee approved a measure that gave Deukmejian almost everything he had been asking for.
The committee action leaves Deukmejian tantalizingly close to establishing a new Department of Waste Management--something that his predecessor, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., had attempted unsuccessfully to do in 1981.
The plan was amended into a bill that had already passed both houses of the Legislature. That maneuver will enable the lawmakers to short circuit the usual procedures--avoiding time-consuming committee hearings by sending the measure directly to the Assembly and Senate in time for action before the Legislature adjourns Friday.
The agreement on the governor’s plan, which was amended into a bill by Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), came only after Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena), author of a Senate Democratic alternative, withdrew his conflicting bill from consideration.
Torres, who had become the most vocal opponent of the governor’s plan, told reporters, “I expect (the governor’s plan) to sail through both houses as soon as it is out of conference committee.”
As a member of the conference committee, Torres repeatedly voiced objections to the Deukmejian plan, urging that it be amended.
But Deukmejian’s chief negotiator, former Sen. Gordon R. Cologne, a co-author of the state’s landmark 1969 clean water act, would agree to only a few seemingly minor last-minute amendments.
For months, the Deukmejian Administration has been fighting what appeared to be a losing battle to change the way state government regulates hazardous waste transport, storage and dumping.
Under the proposal, a single state agency, with a director serving in the governor’s cabinet, would take over much of the responsibility now shared by the state Department of Health Services, the State Water Resources Control Board and nine regional water quality boards.
The new waste management department would have 583 employees and a $94-million annual budget.
Under the proposal, a new California Waste Commission along with three regional waste commissions would prepare a five-year statewide toxic clean-up plan and hear appeals of decisions made by the new department’s director.
The plan removes much of the authority of the state and regional water boards to clean up toxic pollution. Torres charged that the commissions were stacked in favor of industry and that the Deukmejian plan did not include the kind of tough conflict-of-interest provisions that now apply to members of the water board.
In order to win conference committee approval, Deukmejian Administration officials agreed to make one concession to Sen. Barry Keene (D-Benicia). Keene, the Democratic floor leader in the Senate, insisted that the new California Waste Commission be given broad powers to intervene in department decisions--authority that had been gradually stripped away in the course of negotiations.
Under Keene’s amendment, the department director could still overrule a commission decision, but only when he had strong evidence that the commission’s action was faulty.
The first version of the governor’s plan was defeated in June on a partisan 46-31 Assembly vote. It had been widely attacked by environmental groups and legislators, who charged that it was poorly drafted and left the state powerless to order cleanups of some of the worst cases of hazardous waste pollution.
The Administration submitted a redrafted plan when the Legislature returned from its summer recess in August, and brought in Cologne to negotiate with key legislators.
A retired appellate court judge, Cologne conceded that the governor’s initial proposal was flawed constitutionally. And with Cologne acting as intermediary, Deukmejian accepted several amendments, including one that gave the state water board continued authority over agricultural drainage. The board has taken an active role in regulating selenium-contaminated San Joaquin Valley runoffs that have poisoned waterfowl in the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge.
The amended plan keeps in place most of the elements in the governor’s initial proposal, including the state and regional commissions that can hear appeals of permit decisions and clean-up plans proposed by the new waste management department.