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Program Reels Under Inquiries : Toxics Issue Still Plagues Governor After 4 Years

CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS: One in a Series on the Records of the Candidates for Governor

September 29, 1986|PAUL JACOBS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Within months of taking office, Gov. George Deukmejian declared that he was going to be tough on toxic polluters.

In a surprisingly forceful speech to the California Manufacturers Assn.--an audience that might have hoped for relaxation of some regulations--he served notice that the improper disposal of hazardous waste was "the No. 1 environmental problem facing our state" and that environmental laws would be "enforced to the letter."

But as the end of Deukmejian's four-year term approaches and as he runs for reelection, the Administration's toxics program is still reeling from a series of critical audits and investigations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI and the state auditor general.

Issue in Campaign

And Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Republican governor's Democratic opponent in the Nov. 4 election, has made the Administration's toxics record one of the central issues in his underdog campaign.

While reviewing Deukmejian's toxics record, The Times found these signs of turmoil within the state's hazardous waste cleanup and enforcement programs:

- All six privately run dumps that are licensed by the Deukmejian Administration to accept the most toxic chemicals are leaking or fail to meet all federal rules for safe disposal. As a result, the EPA refuses to allow waste from federally financed cleanup sites in California to be hauled to any of them.

- A key U.S. environmental official early this year contended that the state toxics bureaucracy was "paralyzed" and recommended that California be stripped of its responsibility for cleanup of the Stringfellow Acid Pits near Riverside, the state's most notorious dump site. Only after the Administration agreed to reforms and increased staffing did the EPA allow the state to retain control.

- Not one of the more than 200 dump sites on the state's priority cleanup list has been decontaminated and removed from the list since November, 1984.

Top Deukmejian officials defend the Administration's record. They argue that they are building an efficient cleanup and enforcement program out of the rubble that they found when they inherited the job from Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

They insist that the performance under Deukmejian has been good and is getting better under a new management team brought in by the Department of Health Services in March to run its toxics division.

"I think that we inherited from the former Administration a program that was in chaos," said Deukmejian's chief of staff, Steven A. Merksamer. "From day one, the program was strengthened and has been strengthened almost every day since."

Increase in Funds

Money for cleanup and enforcement has increased nearly 1 1/2 times since 1982-83 to $144 million this year, Merksamer said. The added funds have allowed the Department of Health Services and other agencies dealing with toxics to increase staff working on the problem by 48%--to 1,386 positions.

The new managers argue that many of the difficulties they are grappling with are simply the inevitable problems of a large bureaucracy that was quickly assembled to enforce laws and supervise cleanup.

"It's almost like trying to build a railroad, lay the track and run the train down it at the same time," said Alex R. Cunningham, chief deputy health services director in charge of toxics.

EPA's regional administrator, Judith E. Ayres, is sympathetic to that position, even though her agency has been highly critical of the state.

"As states set about establishing these programs, I'm not aware of any that skated through with an extraordinary and streamlined program the first go-round," she said. "Because of the visibility of the issue, when there is a misstep it receives a lot of attention."

But another EPA official, who did not want to be identified, complained that several aspects of the state program were "mismanaged" under Deukmejian, and he said that until recently state officials even passed up opportunities for direct help from the federal agency.

Critics, reviewing the record to date for signs of progress, say they are running out of patience.

"It's all promise and no performance," charged David B. Roe, a senior attorney with the Berkeley office of the Environmental Defense Fund and a frequent critic of the Deukmejian Administration's record on toxics. "It's all public relations."

Deukmejian's Plan

To back up the charge, he pointed to a detailed statewide cleanup plan released in May and held up by Deukmejian in his campaign television commercials. In that television spot, the governor asserts: "My comprehensive plan to clean up California is already under way and we'll get the job done."

However, Roe noted, the plan calls for the state to clean up only one dump by the end of 1986 at a cost of $5,000. The desert property, near the Salton Sea and alongside the All American Canal, was contaminated by drums of toxic waste illegally abandoned there more than a decade ago.

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