Strong words Wednesday from state senators in Sacramento during a four-hour oversight hearing looking into the delays during the permitting process for hazardous waste facilities, and breakdowns in the hazardous waste tracking system at the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
At the Senate Environmental Quality committee hearing, members questioned leaders at the DTSC about what has been done to protect public health from toxic harm.
Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D) represents the 19th District and she did not mince words in her opening remarks. Just after she acknowledged her respect for the leadership of the director, Jackson said, "The jig is up. The DTSC has a very important responsibility and it has not accomplished that."
Committee members asked director Debbie Raphael what the department has done in the two and a half years since she was appointed.
Raphael said she inherited a department in a freefall, "What I found was the underlying neglect and rot for DTSC. I don't want to throw anyone under the bus, but we had a lot of churn at the top, seven directors in 10 years," Raphael testified. "There was no fixing, there was no real accountability."
But she said through many "listening sessions" to get feedback from staff and stakeholders, she has developed a plan to "fix the foundation," by creating performance appraisals and a duty system so that employees from front line staff to top managers know what's expected of them. Raphael said the root cause of problems at the department stemmed from a lack of clear authority and procedures, which left the staff reluctant to make decisions.
Senators wanted to know about the department’s two most important functions: permitting and hazardous waste tracking.
"At DTSC, you’re to be the enforcer. As the enforcer, you’re to be the sharp tip of the spear and the spear has been rather dull of late," Senator Kevin De Leon, 22nd District, said. "What I've seen is repeated failure on behalf of the department to protect some of the most vulnerable communities throughout the state of California. This is not a northern California or southern California problem but it is, I believe, a deeply entrenched systemic cultural problem in the department."
Raphael said the history of regulators being unable to decide which companies should receive permits and which permits should be changed or revoked is changing with a re-organization that has aligned permitting, enforcement, regulation and policy under the direction of deputy director Brian Johnson, who also testified before the committee.
She said the average time for DTSC permit renewals is four years. The department's goal now is to get renewals done in two years.
The director is also requesting $1.4 million and 3.5 positions to fix the department’s hazardous waste tracking system, which she called "broken and antiquated."
An analysis by the Investigative Unit last year showed more than 40 percent of the hazardous waste manifests in the system contained errors or were missing key details about the waste and its final destination.
Committee chairman Jerry Hill — whose district includes the Sims metal recycling plant in Redwood City — asked how the department is handling the 440,000 tons of shredder waste produced every year. The shredder waste, also called fluff, is a material critics and department's own internal memos have indicated should be disposed of as a hazardous waste…but remains exempt under letters granted decades ago.
"The two fires we’ve seen at Sims in the last six months — that’s very troubling. It's not just the fire, it's what that fire is creating. What’s in the smoke traveling over the Bay Area?" Hill said.
NBC Bay Area first raised many of these issues last February, after department veterans broke their silence and accused regulators of failing to enforce environmental laws.
Senators vowed to hold another hearing to track the progress promised by Raphael and her deputy directors.
In the meantime, the committee passed four bills Wednesday to strengthen the hazardous waste regulatory system and set deadlines for permit decisions. If they pass the Appropriations committee—they’ll go before the full House for a vote by the end of January.