Ridding California of buried chemicals is complicated, first, by the fact that nobody knows exactly where they are or what they are doing to the environment and, second, by public confusion over where to turn for help. Cleaning up the confusion over where the public can go for help is complicated by a Sacramento political situation almost as toxic as the dumps themselves. Until the politicians get together, the scientists and managers cannot get to work with streamlined government tools at their command. And no matter how tenuous the link may seem between straight lines of bureaucratic communication and a foul-smelling dump, the aroma will linger until something is done about the bureaucracy of it all.
Once again two proposals are before the Legislature this week to reorganize the waste-management apparatus of state government. One comes from Gov. George Deukmejian, whose first attempt was rejected by the Legislature last year because it would have weakened, not strengthened, the cleanup process. The second and tougher measure is sponsored by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles). It moved quietly through the Senate last year and passed the Assembly Monday.
Deukmejian naturally prefers his own plan. This is an election year, and toxics will be an issue both because the governor is perceived as vulnerable on it and because the issue hits home every time another dump springs a leak. Torres wants his own bill to pass because he thinks it's better (and just perhaps because it's an election year).
Deukmejian, whose political style is to keep his own counsel, dislikes being publicly picked at on toxics and other topics by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who speaks his mind bluntly. Senate President David Roberti (D-Los Angeles) operates on yet a third wavelength. Another legislator, Assemblyman Louis J. Papan (D-Millbrae), muddied the water even further late last session by refusing to back the governor's revised toxics plan because Republicans wouldn't go along with him on an issue that had nothing to do with dumps.
It is hardly a situation to nourish hopes of compromise. But the key players can and must put all this aside and concentrate on the three principal differences in the two approaches.
One issue is whether the director appointed by the governor should be the final arbiter on key waste-management decisions. The governor wants more control than Torres' bill would give him; he should have it.
The second issue is whether there should be a new cabinet-level post that oversees air and water quality as well as waste management on the sound theory that it is difficult to separate these functions and be effective. Torres wants what is in effect a state Environmental Protection Agency; Deukmejian doesn't. There is room for compromise.
Finally, Torres wants strong conflict-of-interest rules and a commission made up of independent experts so that the regulators don't come from the industries regulated. That makes sense, and Deukmejian should embrace the idea in the interests of good government.
The issue could be resolved in a matter of days. Deukmejian could correctly claim credit for initiating the reorganization process and signing it into law. Torres would get his bill, with its solid conflict-of-interest requirements, passed and signed. And it would be a Senate bill, not still another bill from the Assembly that so rankles the governor. Straight talk could help clear the air in Sacramento, and certainly start cleaning the air and water around California.