SoCal lawmakers introduce bills to reform toxics agency

Molly Peterson/KPCC

Four Southern California legislators have introduced a five-bill package aimed at strengthening the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Critics of the agency – which is charged with protecting residents and the environment from toxic substances – have long said the department is falling down on the job. 

The department regulates and oversees companies that use toxic materials and ensures they follow laws and dispose of hazardous waste appropriately.

But several high-profile cases, including the now-shuttered Exide Technology battery recycling plant in Vernon, prompted several members of the Assembly to action, said the author of one of the bills, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles).

Exide operated for three decades on a temporary permit with little oversight. It smelted batteries until 2015, when it agreed to shut down to avoid federal criminal charges.

"What we saw happen in the example of Exide should have never happened," Santiago said. "There is no excuse and it is unexplainable that there was a complete failure on the part of the agency to address this issue early."

Assemblyman Santiago's bill would encourage facilities to use fence line monitoring to better detect pollution.

Another bill, AB 249, authored by Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-San Bernardino), would require hazardous waste facilities to submit permit renewals two years prior to the current permit's expiration to avoid lapses.

A third bill, AB 245 authored by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), would require hazardous waste facilities to comply with higher financial assurance requirements to make sure there are adequate funds for contamination cleanup.

AB 249, also authored by Gomez, would increase the maximum penalties the department could impose, and AB 247, by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), would create a statewide task force focused on reducing lead poisoning.

Santiago said the legislation would reform DTSC, while giving the agency the teeth it needs to protect communities from pollution.

The DTSC said it does not comment on pending legislation.

In the case of Exide, Gov. Jerry Brown signed emergency legislation in April 2016 approving an infusion of $176.6 million to test for and remove lead from properties in a 1.7-mile radius around the former plant. The legislation requires the state to seek reimbursement from Exide for the cost of the cleanup.

In December, the agency released its plan to clean up roughly 2,500 properties with the highest levels of lead in their soil.

The clean-up will be, "the largest of its kind undertaken in California and demonstrates the Administration's commitment to revitalizing these communities and protecting the health of those who live there," the DTSC said in a statement.

It is "high time that the legislature reformed the DTSC," said Liza Tucker, an advocate with Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit public research group.

"This company was allowed to coat East Los Angeles with a thick blanket of hazardous waste levels of lead and other heavy metals for decades and nothing was ever done about it," Tucker said.

She said Exide wasn't penalized enough for the pollution it created. But she said the agency's problems go beyond this one company.

"Exide was perhaps the most visible to the naked eye, because it was so closely covered and it did involve really egregious pollution, and it involved a lot of money to clean it up," Tucker said. "But I also think there is a larger systemic problem in how we regulate these toxics."