SACRAMENTO — Gov. George Deukmejian's plans for a new department to deal with the burgeoning crisis in toxic waste disposal was modified Thursday in hopes of dealing with mounting criticism that it would become a political tool of the governor's office.
While earlier versions of the plan would have placed ultimate decision-making authority with David Swoap, Deukmejian's health and welfare secretary, the new proposal would set up a network of three regional waste management boards and give appellate authority to an 11-member statewide waste commission.
It also proposes a special site-cleanup division within the new department that would be responsible for cleaning hazardous waste sites and administering federal "Superfund" cleanup money.
In releasing the plan, Swoap described the modifications as "a series of logical and beneficial changes." He said the Administration's decision to revise the plan was "the product of unprecedented and significant early citizen involvement."
Deukmejian's proposal to create a new department of waste management that would deal with all toxic and nontoxic waste could still change, however. Instead of submitting it to the Little Hoover Commission as required under the state's reorganization plan, Deukmejian has decided to wait another nine days for more comment.
Until Thursday, the plan was little more than a sketchy concept designed to end duplication among 12 separate state agencies. And it seemed to satisfy no one.
In hearings last month, witnesses representing the full spectrum of special interests--from environmentalists to chemical producers and farmers--expressed concern over many aspects of the plan. At the very least, most wanted some kind of regulatory board with which they could appeal unsatisfactory decisions made by the new department's appointed chief.
The three regional boards and the 11-member California Waste Commission appear to do that, although critics still note that all appointments are made by the governor. The boards' review and appeals powers also would be limited to such functions as waste hauling and disposal permits. They would have no direct review of such controversial decisions as setting pollution control standards.
"They are just some cosmetic improvements," said Michael Paparian, director of the Sierra Club's legislative office and an outspoken critic of the governor's plan.
But Dan Haley, vice president of the Western Growers Assn., applauded the proposal as a "well thought-out plan." At the same time, however, he expressed concern that the new boards could amount to little more than "a new layer of government."
Beyond the question of the appeals process, the plan leaves unresolved two items that have caused a considerable amount of controversy--regulation of pesticides and powers of the Water Quality Control Board and its nine regional boards, currently among the state's major pollution enforcement entities.
As in the initial draft, the Department of Food and Agriculture would continue to have jurisdiction over pesticide application--something demanded by powerful farming interests but opposed by environmentalists who believe it will leave farm workers and residents of agricultural areas unprotected from chemical pollution.
Losing Some Functions
As to the role of the water boards, Swoap said the plan maintains their independence, adding that only a "minimal number" of their functions will be transferred to the new department.
In fact, the proposal strips the boards of their authority to set pollution control standards, currently shared with the Department of Health Services, as well as their power to oversee underground tanks, clean up toxic pits and inspect hazardous waste generators. All those functions would be switched to the new department.
On Thursday, a water board spokesman said only that "we will have to see how it works out." But others, such as James W. Bruner, who represents the nation's largest private waste disposal company, said he is "quite concerned" about the board's altered role.