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Governor's Proposal for Toxic Cleanups Faces Rigorous Test

September 03, 1985|PAUL JACOBS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The unsafe disposal of toxic waste is the most serious public health problem facing our society today.

--Gov. George Deukmejian, Jan. 8, 1985.

In the nine months since Gov. George Deukmejian first announced his intention to create a new department to manage and clean up toxic wastes, his plan has had rough going.

His goal was to lift the state's hazardous waste problems to the highest level of government--concentrating most existing enforcement powers in a department whose chief would report directly to the governor and would serve in the governor's cabinet.

But in the final days of the 1985 legislative session, Deukmejian's reorganization has still not won approval. If the new Department of Waste Management, and the system of state and regional waste commissions that go along with it, are to be in place by Jan. 1, 1986--the governor's self-imposed deadline--the Legislature must approve the proposal before it adjourns Sept. 13.

Deukmejian's initial proposal, sent to the Legislature in May, was criticized as shoddily drafted. It was so flawed in the view of former state Sen. Gordon R. Cologne (R-Indio), one of the governor's strongest supporters and co-author of the state's landmark 1969 Clean Water Act, that Cologne confessed to a legislative committee that he would not have voted for it if he were still in the Senate.

After the plan was knocked down by Assembly Democrats in June on a partisan 46-31 vote, Deukmejian turned to Cologne to put the pieces together again.

By all accounts, Cologne and a task force of lawyers and staff members from the various agencies that now have roles in regulating hazardous waste did a careful job. They closed many of the gaps that were present in the first plan--errors and omissions that might have voided existing anti-pollution orders by the state Water Resources Control Board. The board, together with nine regional water quality control boards, administers the Clean Water Act. Their role now overlaps, in some respects, that of the Department of Health Services, which shares responsibilities for toxic wastes.

Deukmejian said he wanted to streamline the approach.

"If you think of hazardous waste law as a jigsaw puzzle, we had to fit all the pieces together so there would be no gaps, no holes, so that anyone looking at it would get a picture, a very clear picture," said William R. Attwater, chief counsel for the water board and one of the drafters of the latest Deukmejian toxics proposal.

Under the plan, for example, the water board would bow out of most hazardous waste matters. It would turn over to the new waste management department most of its power over hazardous waste sites, which can have devastating effects on land, water and air.

The plan remains the object of intense criticism from some Democrats and environmental groups who charge that the reorganization could add to environmental problems rather than solve them.

In a lengthy Aug. 30 memorandum, two lawyers in state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp's office charged that the changes the governor has proposed "will likely weaken the state's enforcement program and, therefore, threaten our protection against hazardous substance problems."

A Question of Blame

However, some legislators have indicated a willingness to give Deukmejian much of what he has asked for. They fear that the Republican governor will blame the Democrat-controlled Legislature for any failure to move fast enough in cleaning up thousands of dump sites around the state that may threaten water supplies and the health of nearby residents.

There are already signs that hazardous waste policy will be an issue next year when Deukmejian has said he will seek a second term. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 1986, has been attacking Deukmejian's performance on toxic cleanups for more than a year.

Deukmejian and his staff have been touting their own accomplishments, taking credit for cleaning up more than 100 spills and deliberate dumpings--and a few dump sites--compared to only 13 cleanups under Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

The Administration has argued that current law spreads responsibility for toxics among too many agencies. The result is a bureaucratic tangle that retards cleanups and slows the issuing of permits to facilities that transport, store, and dispose of toxic materials.

New Bureaucracy Seen

But one key Democrat, Sen. Art Torres of South Pasadena, has complained that the Deukmejian plan introduces new layers of bureaucracy into an already cumbersome system. Torres, who chairs the Senate Toxics and Public Safety Management Committee, has vowed to fight the governor's plan and has offered an alternative of his own.

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