Cal EPA: One Major Agency to Handle One Big Mess : The state's environment needs all the coordinated help it can get

California's environment needs all the help it can get to protect it from the 30 million people who pollute it just by living in it.

Urban Southern California has the nation's dirtiest air and Bakersfield, a small city in a rural setting, has the second dirtiest. Too much of the state's beautiful coastline is polluted. There is not enough fresh water to go around. Trash dumps are filled to overflowing and the state is running out of canyons for new ones.

So the surprise is not that Gov. Pete Wilson wants to carry out his campaign promise to reorganize the way California protects its environment. The surprise is that he has found someone willing to take responsibility not just for water and air quality, trash dumps and pesticides, but the whole mess.

His choice is James A. Strock, who would become the state's first secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency if the plan is approved. He is a former chief of enforcement for the federal Environmental Protection Agency and has been on Wilson's staff for two months. Long enough, he says, not to be naive about the size of the job, short enough to be optimistic that it can be done.

The state's Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog agency that assesses state programs, and the Legislature have 90 days between them to agree to the plan or vote it down. It shouldn't take nearly that long to see that the benefits far outweigh any reservations about it.

THE NEED: Wilson's plan is to fold existing air and water quality programs, pesticide and toxic-waste controls and controls over pesticides, toxic materials and waste disposal into a single department--Cal-EPA.

There is more to this than carrying out a campaign promise. Wilson has made it clear that, campaign or not, he understands the importance of the environment. He has moved to spare ancient forests from lumber company chain saws and ensure that thirsty California cities leave enough water in place to protect rivers and wetlands.

LINKAGES: His environmental views reflect the notion that in nature everything is connected to everything else. "We are learning that in any developed society," he said in announcing Cal-EPA, "the future of the environment and the economy are inextricably linked." Fouling the air and the open spaces that once attracted people and business will inevitably drive the same people and businesses away.

Bigger is not always better, but Cal-EPA is an exception. There are sound management arguments for consolidating environmental programs. One is the very adage that everything is connected to everything else. A governor needs someone watching environmental programs across the board to make certain, for example, that a process for making air cleaner does not somehow lead to dumping what is swept out of the air into water supplies.

COORDINATION: Just coordinating the work of agencies will be a handful by itself at first, but eventually having all environmental programs together could make it easier to issue all necessary permits for a project in one place.

Predictably, Wilson's plan to change regulation of agricultural pesticides is attacked both by farmers and environmental advocates. Farmers are concerned that moving enforcement of pesticide rules out of the Department of Agriculture into the new Cal-EPA will make it easier for pesticide critics to get their way. Environmentalists, who complain that the agriculture department should not enforce rules for the very farmers whose interests it promotes, say the plan does not call for enough new pesticide law.

We suspect that both are overreacting. The broadest law on pesticides and other toxic substances is the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Substances Act, approved by California voters as Proposition 65 in 1986.

Under that law, manufacturers are required to warn users and consumers that enough toxic substances can exist in products or produce to be a health threat. The levels at which the toxics pose some risk are certified by an advisory committee of scientists, reporting directly to the governor. The Wilson reorganization plan would make no change in these fundamental requirements of the act.

REORGANIZATION: As with most such changes in government, structure will mean less than the personnel who fill it. Well-meaning administrators can make the clumsiest law work if they are determined to do it, and even the most delicately structured department will not run by itself.

California's new governor already has given environmental protection a new respectability in Sacramento. To clean up the state, and to put in place programs that will prevent its getting dirty again, he needs the sort of help that only his proposed new agency can give him. The Legislature should turn Cal-EPA loose on its crucial assignment as soon as possible.

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