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Legislation Could Put Polluters in Hot Water

April 10, 1998| Capitol Alert News Service

Businesses that pollute state water systems could be getting a cold shower from California lawmakers.

Mandatory fines and new laws that would make it easier for individuals to sue polluters are a few of the sanctions proposed in legislation scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday in the Assembly's Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee.

The bill, AB 1862, is only now registering on the radar screen of business lobbyists, who worry that the proposed penalties would be especially punitive on small and medium-sized companies.

Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) says she devised the legislation because the state has high tolerance for manufacturers that dump toxic byproducts such as dioxin and mercury into the water supply.

Environmental and consumer groups backing the legislation say that California companies, ranging from computer manufacturers to oil refineries, admit to about 1,000 violations of federal and state water pollution laws annually.

Many businesses, they say, would rather absorb financial penalties than update toxic waste disposal methods, which would be much costlier.

To deter such an economic trade-off, Migden's legislation would have the state's nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards scale fines against polluters in proportion to their profits. Under the plan, a company that derived a substantial amount of income from a product that generated water pollution during the manufacturing process would be given a larger fine than a company that earned less profit.

The bill would also require the regional water boards to levy minimum fines of $3,000 for a company's first serious violation, which means releasing 20% more toxins than permitted by the state.

Under existing regulations, water control boards first request that companies "cease and desist" polluting. If businesses then promise to comply, they may be given several years to modify dumping practices. Under the proposed law, companies would be liable for fines until they are in compliance.

Just how frequently the fine would be meted out is unclear in the early drafts of the legislation. Currently, the state can charge corporations $25,000 per day for polluting, but rarely does so.

The Los Angeles-based Heal the Bay organization claims in a recent report that out of 9,000 pollution violations recorded in Southern California over the last seven years, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board levied only 14 fines.

Valerie Nera of the California Chamber of Commerce said the $3,000 fine could be ruinous to small businesses, particularly if it's repeated.

Any business that generates toxic byproducts could be affected by the legislation, said Nera, but smaller companies have the most to lose.

Another source of worry for companies is language in the legislation that encourages so-called bounty hunter suits: Individuals adversely affected by water pollution would be able to sue for violations under state anti-pollution laws. Current statutes limit private suits to federal violations.

The California Public Interest Research Group is a member of the environmental coalition sponsoring AB 1862. Other sponsors include the California League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and the National Audubon Society.

Whatever the fate of the legislation, Fran Vitulli, spokesman at the State Water Resources Control Board, said the agency is taking steps independently to beef up enforcement of water pollution laws with the addition of 20 new employees soon to be added its staff.

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Please send comments or suggestions to annette.haddad@latimes.com

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