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Republicans, environmentalists praise tenancious Democrat who is influencing how state is handling toxic waste : Sally Tanner: A Study in Contradictions

December 31, 1987|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

As she puffs on a long brown cigarette during an interview in her Baldwin Park condominium, Assemblywoman Sally Tanner confides that in the next legislative session she hopes to tackle the problem of indoor pollution.

No, she is not about to give up smoking, or vote to ban tobacco on the floor of the Assembly. Instead, Tanner explains, she is talking about the toxic fumes that accumulate in houses and offices from building materials and other sources.

But the fact that Tanner can fret about the health effects of bad indoor air while holding a More cigarette in her hand is just one of her many contradictions.

"She is very complex," said a lobbyist who has followed her career in Sacramento. "She is also unpredictable."

Friends on Other Side

Tanner is a mainstream Democrat, but most of her best friends in the Assembly are Republicans. She is a champion of women's rights, but strongly opposes abortion. She finances her political campaigns with large donations from chemical, oil and waste-hauling interests, but her record is praised by environmentalists.

Now, as she prepares for her 10th year in Sacramento, Tanner is winning recognition as a skilled and tenacious legislator who has strongly influenced the way that the state deals with toxic waste and pollution by drafting laws that reconcile the interests of environmentalists, the chemical industry, agriculture and others.

Kent Stoddard, an assistant to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who follows toxic-substance issues, said that Tanner's committee on toxics is known as a place where "good compromises are achieved." California has led the nation in many areas of toxic regulation, Stoddard said, and Tanner "has been in the middle of all of it."

Minimum Expectations

Tanner said she had no formal education or technical training to prepare her for the subject that has come to dominate her legislative career. "I didn't know anything about toxics," she said. "I was an art student."

But, she said, she did know that the air should be safe to breathe and the water safe to drink.

And so, after news articles in 1979 disclosed that water wells in the San Gabriel Valley had become polluted with industrial solvents, Tanner got permission from the Assembly Speaker to convene a legislative hearing. She said testimony showed that the agencies that should have been dealing with pollution did not communicate with each other and that no one was prepared to assess the health danger from chemicals in the water supply.

From that beginning, Tanner gained the chairmanship of a subcommittee, which evolved into the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee.

Role in Key Legislation

She helped create the state Superfund for toxic-substance cleanup in 1981, was the author of a landmark bill to require the state to identify hazardous chemicals and pesticides in 1983 and secured passage last year of a measure that forces every California county to develop a plan to manage hazardous waste.

She was instrumental in putting contaminated ground-water areas in the San Gabriel Valley on both the state and federal Superfund lists, making money available for cleanup and water purification.

This year, she organized a bipartisan coalition of legislators from the San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire to push for bills on trash disposal and air pollution benefiting those areas. It was the first time that legislators from the two areas formed a united front, and they showed their influence by obtaining approval of bills whose passage had seemed doubtful. One bill prohibited new industrial facilities from adding to pollution there, and the other is aimed at forcing communities elsewhere to handle their own trash instead of sending it to dumps in the San Gabriel Valley.

Early Advocate

Tanner also played a key role in killing proposals to build trash-incineration plants in the San Gabriel Valley by conducting hearings, by publicly opposing the projects and by developing legislative strategy.

"She's been our savior on many things," said Wil Baca, a Hacienda Heights engineer who has been a leader in grass-roots organizations fighting air and water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley.

Baca said Tanner started working on pollution problems "when it wasn't fashionable. She did the groundwork. I give her a lot of credit. She has emerged head and shoulders above other politicians."

But the praise for Tanner is not universal. One environmentalist in Sacramento said her chairmanship of the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee has "been a disaster" because she has moved so cautiously.

And there are both Democrats and Republicans who consider her politically vulnerable despite the large Democratic registration edge in her district, which takes in Baldwin Park, El Monte, the City of Industry, La Puente, Rosemead and part of West Covina.

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