SACRAMENTO — In TV commercial after TV commercial and on billboards scattered throughout the state, opponents of Proposition 65 lash out at the anti-toxics measure--not because it would be too tough on industry, but for exempting government agencies.
The central theme of the anti-initiative advertising is, "Vote no on Proposition 65. It's full of exemptions."
And while there are several exemptions built into the measure, which would limit the release of chemicals thought to cause cancer and birth defects, the opposition ads focus almost exclusively on one: the exemption for government.
"To be fair, a law ought to apply equally to everyone," contended Michael Gagan, manager of the No on 65 campaign. "Public institutions take far less care of toxic materials than private ones."
Backers of the measure dispute his claim and argue that a relatively small number of big companies are responsible for the largest share of the state's hazardous waste.
"Proposition 65 keeps businesses from being tempted to make extra profits by cutting corners on toxics safety," states a brochure prepared by the Yes on 65 campaign committee.
Even in cases where government-run facilities have been identified as sources of pollution, it is industry that is largely responsible, argues another pro-initiative document: "Sewer systems and municipal landfills may contain substantial amounts of toxics, but the source of those toxics is industry, not government."
"If that (the exemptions argument) is the best they can come up with, I don't think a lot of people will believe them," said one of the initiative's authors, David B. Roe, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. "People won't believe it when Chevron says, 'We don't like this law because it's not tough enough.' That's just not very credible."
Chevron Corp. is a major contributor to the No on 65 campaign.
Proposition 65 would require the governor to prepare a list of chemicals believed to cause cancer or reproductive effects, including birth defects, miscarriages and sterility. Initially, the list would include more than 200 cancer-causing substances identified by two widely respected scientific panels, in most cases relying on animal experiments.
The measure would bar businesses with 10 or more employees from releasing any of the listed chemicals into sources of drinking water unless the firms were prepared to show that the amounts posed "no significant risk" of causing cancer or were at one-thousandth the level shown to have "no effect" on reproduction. Businesses that intentionally expose workers or consumers to the listed materials would have to warn them of the exposure. Firms that violate the initiative would be subject to fines of as much as $2,500 a day.
Any citizen could file a lawsuit and, if successful, collect 25% of the penalty--unless a local prosecutor or the state attorney general chose to take over the case.
Exempt from the initiative's provisions, however, would be all public agencies and any drinking water system, whether public or private.
Opponents contend that the drafters decided to exclude government because of the potential costs. "If they included government, the onus would be on the taxpayer," said Gagan of the No on 65 group. "They would have virtually every government jurisdiction down on their necks."
Gagan also charged that the initiative was tailored to fit this year's governor's race, which again pits Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley against Gov. George Deukmejian. Bradley endorsed Proposition 65; Deukmejian opposes it.
Bradley has made Deukmejian's record on toxic cleanup and enforcement--as well as his position on Proposition 65--a central theme in his campaign.
Gagan contended that Bradley's top advisers, who helped draft the initiative, purposely excluded government to protect the City of Los Angeles, which recently agreed to pay $650,000 in fines for dumping sewage into Santa Monica Bay.
But environmentalist attorney Roe emphatically denied the allegation and accused the No on 65 campaign of trying to score points for Deukmejian.
"They know that chromium (a cancer-causing metal found in Santa Monica Bay and elsewhere) isn't going into sewers from ordinary households," Roe said. The measure would attack the pollution at its source, big businesses that produce the biggest volumes of hazardous waste, he said.
The drafters of the ballot initiative--a group that includes Bradley's top deputy, Tom Houston--"had to decide where to draw lines to get to the heart of the problem and not get lost in a lot of tricky side issues," Roe said.
"When writing an initiative, you know that it is going to get distorted," he said. "You know that your opponents are going to ransack it, looking for examples of the worst that is going to happen."