Director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control: Who Is Barbara Lee?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Governor Jerry Brown’s new choice to run the beleaguered Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) wasn’t in her office three weeks before one of the agency’s harshest critics, Consumer Watchdog, was demanding she be replaced.

Consumer advocate Liz Tucker castigated Director Barbara A. Lee for reported comments at a November 18 staff meeting that she did not see a need to “change anything or shake anything up in a big way.” Lee made the remarks while assuring employees that she would be talking to them first before making any big decisions, but critics demanding better protection of low-income communities from corporate polluters were disappointed.

Ingrid Brostrom, senior attorney with  the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE), said,

“This response is incredibly tone deaf. The department is falling down and desperately in need for a strong, visionary leader to put this agency back on track. DTSC’s permitting, cleanup, and enforcement programs are all in shambles. Leadership positions remain vacant. The Legislature, executive branch, and advocates across the state are all demanding drastic and fundamental changes in the agency to better protect Californians from toxic threats. If Barbara Lee truly believes that she doesn’t have to change anything or shake things up, she is clearly not the right person for the job.”

Lee, who has worked in environmental regulation for more than 20 years, graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1987. She went to work as an engineer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in 1990 and stayed four years.

She moved to the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District as supervising air quality engineer in 1994 and held the position until she was promoted to air pollution control officer two years later.

Lee is co-chair of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies Monitoring Committee and has been a member of the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association board, where she served as president in 2000, 2005 and 2008. She was co-chair of the California Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Justice Advisory Committee from 2005 to 2007, where she was a member from 2001 to 2007.

Lee took over the department five months after Director Debbie Rafael resigned under fire. The department, which oversees and regulates the treatment and disposal of hazardous waste, has been accused of being too cozy with corporate polluters and lax in its enforcement of environmental laws.

Raphael took a shot at some of her critics―and sent out a warning to her future successor―on the way out the door when she wrote in an email to her staff that the department “weathered the criticism of so-called watchdogs and the scrutiny of the news media and the legislature.”

NBC Bay Area was a constant critic. The TV station ran a year-long series of stories claiming conflicts of interest, a lack of transparency, a lousy permitting process that failed to collect money owed by polluters, a crappy system for tracking hazardous waste disposal and overall poor management.

The Los Angeles Times had its own sporadic series of stories last year about the department’s challenges, including its failure to rein in Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant in Vernon that was deemed an urgent health threat to 110,000 people.

Democratic Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson opened a hearing in January by the Senate Environmental Health Committee when she told Raphael, “The jig is up. The DTSC has a very important responsibility and it has not accomplished that.”    

Lee is registered without political party preference. The position of DTSC director requires Senate confirmation and the compensation is $170,652.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

New California Department of Toxic Substances Control Head Appointed (by Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

New DTSC Director Says No Need to Reform Toxics Agency: Consumer Watchdog Urges Governor Brown to Fire Appointee or Have Her Apologize (Consumer Watchdog)

New DTSC Chief’s Vow Against Short-Term Overhaul Spurs Advocates’ Fears (by Curt Berry, Inside Cal/EPA) (pdf)

Gov. Brown Appoints Barbara Lee as New DTSC Director (by A.J. Esposito, Prop 65 News)

Governor Brown Announces Appointments (California Office of the Governor)

Embattled State Toxics Department Director Debbie Raphael Leaving for S.F. Job (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Leave a comment