Governor vetoes bill to reform California's top toxics regulator, the DTSC

The Exide battery recycling plant in southeast Los Angeles County emitted toxic metal dust over decades that contaminated as many as 10,000 homes in half a dozen working-class, Latino communities near the plant. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

Governor Gavin Newsom last night vetoed AB 995, a bipartisan bill to reform the state’s top toxics regulator, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and clean up toxic pollution in frontline communities throughout California.

It was the last environmental justice priority bill on Newsom’s desk — and a coalition of environmental justice organizations were deeply disappointed with the veto.

Sponsored by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), the bill would create a five-member Board of Environmental Safety within the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) to provide policy direction to and oversight of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The bill would also have restructured the Hazardous Waste Control Account (HWCA), created a Hazardous Waste Facilities Account (HWFA), and made other changes.

The DTSC has been under fire in recent years for “rampant regulatory failures and mismanagement, including over the Exide battery smelter, considered one of the worst cases of environmental racism in the country,” according to a press release from the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA).

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The DTSC, with a standing deficit of nearly $30 million, is the only regulatory and permitting agency at the California EPA without an oversight board, environmental justice advocates said. 

“The bill would have closed two-thirds of DTSC’s deficit and ensured more accountability and transparency by creating a Board of Environmental Safety as the priority-setting body for DTSC,” the coalition stated. 

In his veto statement, Newsom said, “I applaud the author’s diligence in seeking to increase transparency and accountability in DTSC. However, the bill as written falls short of the goals we have previously set for needed changes to better protect public health and safety.”

“Without necessary funding, DTSC will be unable to deliver on the promise of this legislation - cleaning up too many abandoned sites adversely impacting the health of low-income communities across our state and better protecting Californians from dangerous chemicals going forward…AB 995 seeks to impose changes to governance by lacks necessary fiscal reform."     

Meredith Williams, Director of DTSC, responded to the Governor’s veto of the bill in a statement:

“California needs DTSC policy and fiscal reforms to ensure transparency, accountability, and our ability to respond to stakeholder’s concerns. One cannot be done without the other. The state and its constituents can no longer bear the burden of cleaning up after polluters without proper compensation. And with the health and safety of Californians at risk, we need these reforms to be developed and implemented holistically.

“A fully resourced DTSC is critical to protecting our most vulnerable communities from the continued burden of pollution from some of the worst polluters in our state, and we will take every opportunity possible to come to agreement with the Legislature and stakeholders this next Session, working to build consensus around a winnable and sustainable solution that will set DTSC up for success well into the future.” 

However, environmental justice advocates pointed out that without an oversight body, the DTSC failed to collect nearly $200 million in costs for oversight of toxic cleanups, as revealed by a State Auditor. In addition, numerous hazardous waste facilities were operating with expired permits, in some cases emitting dangerous pollutants and carcinogens that endangered residents’ lives, 

“Environmental justice communities are tired of bearing the burden of California’s toxic waste dumping ground,” said Katie Valenzuela, Policy and Political Director, CEJA Action. “CEJA Action is deeply disappointed that the Governor vetoed AB 995. AB 995 was a unique bipartisan solution to clean up decades of toxic waste and bring $21 million in from corporate polluters.”

“Our undocumented, low income, working-class, and Black Indigenous and communities of color have waited long enough for action from our leaders. In 2021, any climate, public health agenda that claims to be progressive for California must include reforms to the Department of Toxic Substances Control,” she stated. 

Martha Dina Arguello, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, stated that the DTSC reform bill was “a top priority bill because the health and safety of residents are being jeopardized without proper oversight and accountability to protect them from toxic exposure.”

She pointed out that recent studies have shown a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths in communities with high air pollution and resulting compromised respiratory and overall health. Similarly, the current wildfires have exacerbated already poor air quality in the most vulnerable communities. 

“After years of warning, DTSC is now insolvent,” said Ingrid Brostrom, Assistant Director, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. “Without funding for clean-ups, enforcement, and hazardous waste facility inspections, vulnerable populations are at even higher risk of toxic exposures.

In light of the multiple health threats facing our communities, it is simply unconscionable for the Governor to veto AB 995, especially without an alternative plan to keep the Department running. The state can’t afford to walk away now. Our communities are paying too high a price for California’s continued inaction,” Brostrom concluded. 

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