Review Finds California Toxics Regulator "Poorly Managed," Lacks Standards

New report concludes state department is ineffective in permitting companies that handle hazardous waste.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    After a comprehensive review of the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s permit process, auditors with California Personnel Services found the permit process lacks “clearly stated objectives and purposes” and permit renewals take an average of four years. The review blames poor management and understaffing. Vicky Nguyen continues the investigative series about the state’s toxics regulator. This story aired on October 8, 2013.

    The Department of Toxic Substances Control has failed to establish clear guidelines for its permitting process for companies that deal with hazardous waste, according to a new review released Tuesday by consulting firm California Personnel Services.

    Chief among the findings of the 10-month study of the department’s permit process:

    • It lacks “clearly stated objectives and purposes.”
    • There’s no standard process when it comes to how the toxic regulator issues, suspends, or revokes permits.
    • Permitting renewals take an average of 4.3 years from start to finish. In some cases — the process took longer than nine years.
    • Staff levels have gone from 95 authorized positions in 2006 to 29 this year.
    • Poor management and supervision of personnel between 2009-2013 “direct supervision of personnel lapsed.”

    The full CPS review can be found on the DTSC website.

    In February, DTSC director Debbie Raphael issued a letter to staff informing them that 22 out of 117 — or nearly 20 percent — of hazardous waste facilities that treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste are operating with outdated permits. Those 117 companies handle 1.8 billion tons of hazardous waste each year in California.

    The state toxics regulator is responsible for protecting the environment and the health of Californians.

    Reviewers with CPS issued several recommendations, including:

    • Formally articulate the objectives and purposes of the Permitting Program…to be approved by Cal‐EPA Secretariat and the relevant Legislative Oversight Committees.
    • Hiring an additional seven people into the department’s permitting office, bringing the total number of staff in that division to 35
    • Categorize violations to reflect whether they present an immediate and direct threat to human health and safety

    CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE INITIAL NBC BAY AREA INVESTIGATION INTO THE DTSC

    “We have a permitting system that is in need of some improvement,” Raphael told NBC Bay Area during an interview in August. “I would suggest and agree our permitting program is not operating as it should be.”

    Critics have long complained about what they call “lip service” by department leaders and have criticized them for failing to revoke the permits of companies that continue to break environmental laws. They point to Evergreen Oil in Newark as a serial polluter with a history of leaks, spills and explosions.

    Evergreen declared bankruptcy in April, and on Sept. 24 — one week after new parent company Clean Harbors took control of the facility — the company experienced another 75-100 gallon oil spill. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District said the agency is considering whether to issue Evergreen yet another violation.

    When asked why Evergreen has not received significant sanctions for being a serial polluter, Raphael said that the company is under “careful scrutiny and careful attention” by department leaders.

    “When you look at a company like Evergreen it is a complicated industrial setting where you have a number of agencies looking at and making sure that [the company] is coming into compliance,” Raphael said.

    A spokesman for Clean Harbors — which just bought Evergreen out of bankruptcy last month—said the company is committed to “bring the facility up to best in class within the industry as a viable, safe and compliant operation.”

    CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR RAPHAEL

    The Southern California-based hazardous waste recycler Phibro-Tech has also come under fire by residents in Santa Fe Springs for operating under a permit that expired 16 years ago.

    According to DTSC regulations, permits are grandfathered-in and valid until the agency makes a decision to renew them. The company has said that the department issued Phibro-Tech a draft permit in 2010 and that the company is working with the DTSC to renew the permit.

    Department leaders declined an on-camera interview to discuss the results of the permit review but posted the following response on its website: “DTSC will review the report in depth and provide a response to the findings and recommendations. That response will be posted on DTSC’s website in November, and will be discussed at a public meeting on December 16, 2013 at 9 a.m. in the Byron Sher Auditorium, Cal/EPA Building. A public notice of this meeting will be issued and posted on DTSC’s web site. The meeting will be web cast and will include an opportunity for public input on DTSC’s response.”

    Have a tip for the Investigative Unit? Email theunit@nbcbayarea.com, call 888-996-8477 or contact reporter Vicky Nguyen at Vicky.Nguyen@nbcuni.com or elizabeth.wagner@nbcuni.com.

    CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE INVESTIGATION INTO STOCK HOLDINGS BY DTSC LEADERS

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