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U.S. to Restore Control of Toxic Waste to State

April 23, 1986|PAUL JACOBS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it plans to restore to the Deukmejian Administration the power to issue permits for handling toxic wastes and to grant the state additional authority over hazardous substance disposal.

The decision came almost three months after the federal agency stripped the state of its long-standing authority to regulate hazardous waste up to the point at which it is disposed of. The proposed action would not only restore this power to California, but would also give the state Department of Health Services a greater role in issuing permits for the incineration or land disposal of toxic substances.

The EPA decision will not be made final until after public hearings on June 3 and June 4 in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Deukmejian Administration's handling of toxic wastes has come under fire from critics for more than a year and has been the target of a series of state and federal investigations, including one by the FBI. It also is a major issue in Gov. George Deukmejian's reelection campaign.

"EPA's action reaffirms the confidence we have had all along in the program," said William Ihle, spokesman for the state Department of Health Services. "We've said from the start that any of the minor difficulties that they had with the program were with the paper work."

Although federal officials are requiring the department to take steps to improve monitoring and enforcement efforts before the permit-issuing programs are turned over to the state, the action is an apparent vote of confidence in the newly installed team that has been running the Deukmejian Administration's toxic waste unit since January.

In a statement, EPA regional administrator Judith Ayres noted that "California has significantly improved its program performance during the past months."

Since 1981, state officials have held temporary authority to implement various parts of federal hazardous waste regulations. But EPA officials have frequently criticized the state's regulatory programs, which divide responsibility among several agencies.

The announcement that the EPA intends to grant the state full permitting authority included criticism of the Department of Health Services' performance in monitoring waste handlers, reporting violations of federal rules and taking "timely and appropriate enforcement actions."

Critical of Other States

But federal officials have made similar complaints about programs in other states as well, said John Masterman, who runs the state toxics division's permitting programs.

"That (criticism) is like national politicians saying they are very concerned about terrorism," Masterman said. "EPA is saying they are worried about inspection and timely enforcement."

Nevertheless, state officials have promised the EPA that they will take further steps to guarantee thorough, well documented inspections and to act quickly whenever a major violation of federal hazardous waste rules is uncovered.

In February, shortly after the EPA withdrew California's ability to issue toxic waste permits, Deukmejian played down the significance of the decision--blaming it on problems in the state's handling of the necessary paper work. He predicted that the action would quickly be reversed.

'Substantive' Problems

However, EPA officials contended that the differences between the state and federal bureaucracies were "substantive," and not merely a matter of the state failing to meet all of the federally imposed deadlines, as the governor had implied.

Since Jan. 31, when the EPA took away the state's permitting authority, the regulation of hazardous waste has gone on largely as it had before, with state officials preparing permits, conducting inspections, and enforcing both state and federal rules for the handling of toxics.

But technically, EPA officials assumed responsibility for the program, and were required to sign permits that in the past had been routinely issued by the state Department of Health Services.

Once the state is given full authority from the EPA, state officials will be able to issue most federal permits without first checking with their federal counterparts.

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