Larry Aker describes his previous environmental assignment as the equivalent of being sent to Siberia: He worked for the Houston Health Department trying to rein in air polluters in the nation's fiercely free-market oil and petrochemical capital.
By contrast, his current job presents an embarrassment of riches: He runs the hazardous-materials management program for San Diego County, a place relatively untarnished so far by toxic contamination and seemingly intent on avoiding it.
In the four years since Aker was hired to start the program, his staff has multiplied from one to 24, with 20 more on the way. And his budget has ballooned to $2.2 million.
Now his office in the county Health Services Department on Pacific Highway is crowded with people with advanced degrees working two to a desk. The next position to be filled is a kind of environmental cop--armed and ready to read Miranda rights to illegal dumpers.
Aker's mandate is to monitor and enforce the proliferating laws that govern the handling of hazardous materials. That includes keeping an eye on about 70,000 tons of toxic wastes generated annually by 3,400 San Diego County firms.
Eighty-five percent of those firms are now in "significant, if not full, compliance"--just four years after 40% said they didn't realize they produced hazardous waste, Aker said. He said the office has gotten 24 dump sites cleaned up--many of them small, but nevertheless clean.
Meanwhile, hundreds of companies--including dozens in the fast-growing Golden Triangle and adjacent areas--have reported to Aker's office the thousands of chemicals that they handle under the county's 2-year-old hazardous-materials disclosure ordinance.
Aker's staff has begun inspecting about 10,000 underground storage tanks in the county--most of them gasoline tanks--and has found 30% so far to be leaking. Aker's office is cautiously optimistic that the tanks owned by high-tech firms will be in better shape simply because they are relatively new.
Aker and others do not perceive the Golden Triangle as a special problem. "I don't think, overall, the types of materials they have there are that different from what they have in other areas," said David Merk, a hazardous-materials specialist.
Most of the increase in the office's duties has come from the state Legislature, whose environmental bills arrive daily on Aker's desk in packets of up to 20. The laws change faster than industry or the office can keep up with them.
For that reason, the unit has concentrated on education: Aker described its role at least until now as "consultant to industry." He and his boss, Gary Stephany, chief of environmental health, defend that approach as the only way to make the program work.
"Regulation by itself doesn't do anything," said Stephany. "You can hire 1,000 inspectors but if industry isn't tuned in to what you're doing, it won't work. You can't have an inspector in every business every day of the year."
Aker conceded that the emphasis on education has taken time away from strict enforcement--the investigation of hazardous-waste cases and the prosecution of polluters. The office averages one new case a month, Aker said, and hopes to bring that figure up to two.
He sees other areas, too, that need attention:
San Diego County has had no facilities for disposing of hazardous waste since the county closed its hazardous-waste landfill in 1980, forcing industries to send their wastes to dumps in other parts of the state or country. Meanwhile, Aker says industry has received insufficient incentive from government to change its processes and generate less waste.
Under the circumstances, he said, a fraction of all waste "is going to follow the path of least resistance--which is down the sewer." That is an area Aker wants to look into because "we certainly are not sure where all the waste is going."
Finally, observers as well as those in hazardous-materials management say government agencies must turn to the question of zoning and ensure that hazardous industries are not permitted to operate in densely populated or residential areas.
"We think that the next wave of activities that's going to affect our unit is going to be industrial planning," Merk said.