State Auditor Joins Criticism of Moribund Toxic Control Agency

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

This might sound familiar. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) doesn’t keep track of contaminated sites very well, has “inadequate procedures” for dealing with them and has failed to collect $194 million for cleanups since 1987.

The agency has certainly heard it all before.

A 115-page consultant’s report (pdf) last year detailed its terrible permit process while ripping management and cluelessness in the department over basic procedures. Much of that was rehashed when Director Debbie Raphael abruptly stepped down in May. The position is occupied by a temp.

So the report (pdf) from the California State Auditor this week wasn’t a revelation. As of March, it reported, the department had outstanding costs for 1,600 projects totaling $194 million that either hadn’t been billed ($142 million) or billed but not collected ($52 million).

Preliminary indications are that 76 of the projects now exceed the statute of limitations for collecting any money from their operators, amounting to $13.4 million that the state will likely never collect.

The department, which operates within the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), has general responsibility for overseeing state responses to the release of hazardous substances, spills and hazardous waste sites. It can investigate, order removal of materials and level civil penalties.

The auditor said that the department changed some of its billing procedures in November and is poised to prevent another buildup of noncollectibles in the future. The DTSC said it agreed with all the auditor’s criticism. Critics of the department are hoping that Senate Bill 812 or other legislation might remedy some of the other shortcomings.

The legislation, sponsored by state Senator Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), addresses critics who don’t want to let an assumption of departmental incompetence overwhelm their suspicion of collusion with corporate polluters. The bill creates a citizens committee to hear complaints and advise the department and a Bureau of Internal Affairs within the DTSC to investigate misconduct.

It also ends the practice of allowing facilities under its purview, like Exide Technologies in the Los Angeles County town of Vernon, to operate with expired permits forever. The department has been savaged for its handling of the battery smelting plant linked to arsenic and lead contamination in the surrounding neighborhood.

Although the plant—and the toxic substances department—have been under fire for years, Exide successfully fended off criticism until a South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) report a year ago said 110,000 people were at higher risk of cancer because of the plant's arsenic emissions. The AQMD filed a civil suit for $40 million in January.

SB 812 passed the Senate in January and is undergoing committee hearings in the Assembly.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Audit Blasts Toxics Agency for Uncollected Bills (by David Siders, Sacramento Bee)

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

State’s Toxic Substances Permit Process Is Terrible and the Department in Charge Knows It (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Its Lack of Diligence in Cost Recovery Has Contributed to Millions in Unbilled and Uncollected Costs (California State Auditor) (pdf)

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