Senate Investigation Finds "Major Problems" in State Toxics Dept.

Report is the culmination of a yearlong examination of the Department of Toxic Substances Control

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    The senate office charged with investigating state agencies recently found that the Department of Toxic Substances Control has failed to live up to its mission in several key areas. Vicky Nguyen reports. (Published Thursday, Aug 7, 2014)

    The senate office charged with investigating state agencies recently found that the Department of Toxic Substances Control has failed to live up to its mission in several key areas. This report comes more than a year after three state senators ordered an investigation into allegations that the DTSC is falling down on the job and putting polluters before public health and the environment.

    “The overall takeaway is, it's true DTSC has had some major problems,” said John Hill, senate investigator and author of the report. “It is important for there to be outside scrutiny.”

    Hill said his own findings matched what the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit revealed in a series of reports over the past 18 months, that often times the department had no idea where hazardous waste is shipped, that the DTSC has allowed toxic waste companies to operate with expired permits for years, and that department leaders have failed to properly regulate the metal-shredding industry.

    Last July, state senators Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), Ellen Corbett (D-East Bay) and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) tasked the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes with examining allegations raised in Golden Wasteland—an expansive report by nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog. The report claims that the DTSC failed to appropriately fine serial polluters and that regulators are too cozy with the industries that they oversee.

    “I agree wholeheartedly that DTSC has lost its mission and we’re hoping they can get back on track,” De Leon said.

    Spurred by the Consumer Watchdog report and interviews with department whistleblowers, the Investigative Unit requested a series of public records including 13 years of data which showed that 44 percent of the time the hazardous waste tracking database contained incorrect or missing information.

    It’s often illegible,” Hill said. “It was sort of a big mess.”

    Most recently, the state auditor slammed the DTSC for failing to properly keep track of and bill polluters for cleanup efforts. According to the state auditor, the department has more than a thousand outstanding cleanup projects totaling $194 million dollars in costs.  The department is supposed to recover these expenses from the polluters themselves, but most of that, roughly $194 million, hasn't even been billed.  Another $52 million hasn't been collected. The audit says some $13 million in fines will likely never be collected because the statute of limitations for cost recovery has expired.

    Records also revealed that DTSC has failed to quickly renew hazardous waste permits for companies that produce or dispose of toxins. Documents show that the DTSC let southern California chemical maker Phibrotech operate with an outdated permit for more than 16 years.

    “Some of them are close to two decades,” Hill said. “That’s very unusual compared to other big states.”

    NBC Bay Area also found that the DTSC allowed the automobile shredding industry to enjoy special privileges that should have expired years ago. Internal memos show that as early as 2002 the department’s own staff encouraged the DTSC to classify treated shredder waste, also known as "fluff," as hazardous, and that the former director ordered the department to do so again in 2009. The DTSC has yet to put that order into action.

    “In my report I say the public and the media and the senate would be well advised to keep an eye and make sure they follow through this time,” Hill said. “They have kicked the can down the road. [The DTSC] has admitted as much to me.”

    While Hill’s report called some of the criticisms included in Golden Wasteland “misleading or lacking in context,” the DTSC itself has acknowledged many failures. The department requested and received from the legislature $3.5 million in funding over the next two years to hire staff and fix its permitting program and hazardous waste tracking system. The DTSC received a total of $7.8 million dollars to make additional reforms such as reducing the backlog of clean up costs owed to the state by polluters, which now stands at $194 million, and hiring more staff.

    Environmental advocates such as Ingrid Brostrom stand behind the findings of the Consumer Watchdog report.

    “You have to think about hazardous waste as the most dangerous substance we have,” Brostrom said. “It poses the most risk to the public and yet the agency that is tasked with protecting the public is just falling down.”

    She helped form the People’s Senate—a coalition representing communities impacted by toxic exposure—which recently proposed its own set of reforms. Brostrom also says she is encouraged by new changes proposed by the legislature.

    “I think a lot of sunlight on the agency has spurred lawmakers into action,” Brostrom said. “We have two bills that are dealing with DTSC right now, specifically.”

    SB 1249 proposed by Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) would require shredded automobile material to undergo regulation by the department. SB 812, introduced by Sen. De Leon, would force the DTSC to reform its permitting program.

    “I would assume that [DTSC] would keep a low profile and keep their nose to the grindstone and do everything possible internally to change culture and become accountable and transparent to the community,” De Leon said.

    The DTSC declined a request for an interview but said via email that the department has been working to strengthen its programs since 2011 and this year asked the legislature and the governor for more money and staff.

    “DTSC is sensitive to public criticism,” Hill said. “I have no doubt that…your reports and the initial Golden Wasteland report caused them to take a harder look at some things.”

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