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Slinging Sludge on Campaign Trail : In Facing Urban Ecological Problems, Bradley Gains an Edge

October 19, 1986|WILLIAM KAHRL | William Kahrl writes on state issues from Sacramento

Early in October there was a day when several freshets and streams of thought that have been running through this political year abruptly came together. It was the day when Los Angeles finally threw in the towel in its long battle to avoid cleaning up its sewage discharges into Santa Monica Bay and agreed to pay the largest fine the Environmental Protection Agency has ever levied against a city under the Clean Water Act.

On the same day San Francisco obtained yet another extension from the EPA under the same federal statute enabling it to continue dumping the same wastes into its bay. And that afternoon, Tom Bradley appeared at the Cannery in San Francisco to accept the gubernatorial endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters.

There are connections between these three events that help to explain how and why the environment, of all things, has moved to center stage in the stretch run of a race between two gubernatorial candidates who have never placed any particular emphasis on ecological concerns until now.

In the lexicon of George Deukmejian's campaign commercial, the conditions at Los Angeles' Hyperion sewage plant have suddenly become an issue of statewide concern, while San Francisco's difficulties with a similarly outmoded and inadequate sewer system have not. There are differences, of course, in the problems each city faces and in the way they've responded to them. But the most important difference, from Deukmejian's point of view, is that San Francisco's mayor doesn't happen to be running for governor.

The wonderful thing about Deukmejian's use of the Hyperion issue is that it is an unquantified and therefore infinitely expandable defense against whatever complaints Bradley may raise against the governor's environmental performance. Deukmejian isn't claiming that Bradley has a worse record on the environment or that his is better. He is relying on Hyperion to suggest instead that Bradley is simply just as bad.

In this context it doesn't matter that the effects of four years of drift and confusion at the state level on toxics control have probably done more measurable damage to the public health than all the sludge in Santa Monica Bay. And never mind that one of the governor's beloved prisons is currently dumping toxic wastes into the Santa Ana River at levels that would require the state to pay a far greater fine than it has ever levied against Los Angeles, except for the fact that the regional water quality control board has suspended those fines. The point of this campaign ploy is that anything Bradley says, Deukmejian can retort, "and you're another."

If there is any superficial validity to equating Bradley's problem at Hyperion with the governor's management of toxics, it probably doesn't compute in Deukmejian's favor. It's true that Deukmejian inherited his problem while Bradley's career in local office spans the entire period of Los Angeles' struggle with the EPA. And both men have seen their programs and policies consistently undercut by recalcitrant legislative bodies.

But Deukmejian's practical authority as governor to direct the agencies at his command and expect them to respond is infinitely greater than the largely ceremonial and hortatory functions of the mayor. The governor raises money and fixes the levels for its expenditure. The mayor is often lucky if he can exercise any moral suasion at all over the City Council's selection of funding priorities.

For a fiscal conservative, Deukmejian's response to the toxics issue has surprisingly focused of late upon throwing money at the problem. His political broadsides emphasize how much the budget for toxic control has increased under his Administration and how many more people have been hired to deal with it. But they speak hardly at all of actual results for the best of reasons--that there are so few that can be identified.

Los Angeles, in contrast, has concentrated on withholding money from its sewage problem in the vain hope that the federal government would somehow be persuaded to relax its standards for ocean discharges. In essence the City Council members have been running a 10-year gamble that Bradley often warned they'd lose. And because in the meantime the 90% funding that the federal government used to provide for cleaning up problems like Hyperion has dried up, it is the city's taxpayers who will have to pay off.

Much has been made of the political advantages Bradley hopes to reap from his involvement in drafting Proposition 65, the toxics control initiative on the November ballot. At a deeper level, however, the contents of the initiative can be read as a direct expression of his experience and frustration with Hyperion.

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