The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has never wanted for controversy during Debbie Raphael's three years as its director. 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, 54, announced on Thursday that she is resigning at the end of the month to become director of the San Francisco Department of Environment. The embattled director is returning to her roots. She worked at the S.F. Exploratoriun from 1987-1992 as a life sciences exhibit designer and was the program manager for the city and county of San Francisco’s Toxics Reduction and Green Building program from 1999-2011, when Governor Jerry Brown tapped her to run DTSC.
In between, Raphael was an environmental program manager for Santa Monica. She received a bachelor of arts degree in biology/plant ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981 and a master’s degree in physiological plant ecology at UCLA in 1985.
Raphael took a shot at some of her critics 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.”
Chief among the “so-called watchdogs” was Liza Tucker at Consumer Watchdog. Tucker wrote Thursday that Raphael's departure was “a hopeful sign that the Brown Administration will finally clean up a deeply troubled department.” The group released a study last year, “Golden Wasteland” (pdf), that alleged conflicts of interest among senior department officials in their dealings with corporate polluters.
Consumer Watchdog regularly criticizes the agency, which oversees 117 facilities that manage hazardous waste and 900 businesses that transport it. “Golden Wasteland” said, “California has some of the toughest environmental protection laws in the nation, but also some of the weakest enforcement. Among the divisions that enforce those laws, the DTSC does the poorest job.”
NBC Bay Area was also 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.
State lawmakers gave Raphael a tough time in January when she appeared at a hearing before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. Democratic Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson opened her remarks with a broadside: “The jig is up,” she said. “The DTSC has a very important responsibility and it has not accomplished that.”
Raphael defended her tenure by arguing that the department had had “seven directors in 10 years” and while she didn't “want to throw anyone under the bus . . . we had a lot of chum at the top.” She acknowledged that the department had a history of failing to run its permit process properly. Her critics said it didn't improve under her direction.
“At DTSC, you’re to be the enforcer,” Democratic Senator Kevin De Leon told her. “As the enforcer, you’re to be the sharp tip of the spear and the spear has been rather dull of late.”
Raphael was appointed to her new position by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. She will have around one-tenth the budget and personnel, and a $20,000 raise, to $169,650,