Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena) on Monday proposed legislation that would write into the California Constitution a "toxic bill of rights."
The proposed constitutional amendment would set tough new standards to protect drinking water and food supplies from contamination, strengthen the ability of local communities to pass their own rules on toxic wastes and make it easier for individuals to go to court if government agencies are not enforcing the law.
The measure, which would require a two-thirds vote of approval of the Legislature to find a spot on the November ballot, is regarded as one more sign that toxic chemicals will be a major issue in statewide races this year as Democrats try to outdo Gov. George Deukmejian on the handling of hazardous waste.
The right of workers to know the effects of chemicals they are exposed to and of consumers to be informed about contamination in food would be guaranteed under the measure. Low levels of hazardous chemicals would be permitted in drinking water and food only if state officials first determined that the amounts were safe.
Environmentalists backed by aides to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley have proposed a somewhat similar measure but as a ballot initiative to go directly before voters for approval in November.
Torres, who chairs the Senate Toxics and Public Safety Management Committee, said he will try to win bipartisan support for his measure, which does not require Deukmejian's signature to be sent to the voters.
"We will never take California back to where it was when . . . Spanish settlers came here, when native Americans began to come," Torres said, referring to pre-mining times when hazards from chemical residues were unknown. "We'll never go back to that era, but clearly we can make attempts to at least maintain what we have now as the status quo and improve (on that) as best we can."
But Republicans are focusing their efforts on Deukmejian's plan to combine several fragments of a divided system of enforcing toxic chemical laws under a new department of waste management, with a director who serves in the governor's cabinet.
"I'm reluctant to incorporate something like (Torres' proposal) into the Constitution," said Republican Sen. Becky Morgan of Los Altos Hills, vice chairman of the Senate toxics committee. She argued that generally the state already has adequate laws to deal with the threat of toxic chemicals.
"We have laws that are not being implemented partly because we don't have the governor's reorganization plan (to establish the new department) in place," Morgan said. The Deukmejian proposal is still before the Legislature, but faces strong Democratic opposition.
Because the Torres plan as now drafted could have a significant effect on agriculture and industry, it is likely to have difficulty getting the legislative support needed to get it before the voters, said Gerald Meral, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, which supports the proposal.
Called Strong Measure
"It is a strong measure," Meral said. "There likely will be compromises (in the Legislature), but Torres started out with a strong proposal."
In an election year, he said, many lawmakers would have difficulty opposing the measure. "From the Democrats' point of view, having Republican (opposing) votes on this would be a potential campaign issue."