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Don't Let Polluters Shirk Responsibility

November 01, 2000|SHEILA JAMES KUEHL | Sheila James Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) represents the 41st District in the state Assembly

Remember how, in kindergarten, we were taught that if you make a mess, you clean it up? That is the current state of the law in California for companies that pollute or cause a health crisis. Foul the water, harm public health through a business practice, leave a toxic mess, and you can be assessed a fee by the Legislature to help clean it up.

Of course, this elemental tenet of fairness does not sit well with the companies that cause the messes. That is why they have sponsored Proposition 37 to undo the common-sense approach of current law. That's also why I am in strong opposition to the measure.

I was thinking about Proposition 37 recently as I attended a legislative hearing at which a panel of scientists gave state legislators compelling evidence that chromium 6, a byproduct of the chromium plating process, causes lung cancer when inhaled and very likely causes other systemic cancers when swallowed. It became overwhelmingly clear to me and to others that this chemical, when found in our drinking water supply, should be purged as quickly as possible.

If this cleanup is necessary--and the data strongly indicates that it is--and if Proposition 37 becomes law, then California's taxpayers, not the companies that caused the problem, could wind up paying every penny of cleanup costs as well as the cost of any necessary replacement drinking water. So much for cleaning up your own messes.

Proposition 37 is not about holding down taxes for individual taxpayers, as the misleading ads claim. It is only concerned with protecting companies from the consequences of their business decisions and actions.

It should be no surprise, then, that 95% of the money funding the "Yes on Proposition 37" campaign in the last three months has come from the oil, tobacco and alcohol industries. These big industries are worried about a recent California Supreme Court decision upholding the Legislature's right to impose a fee on companies whose products contain lead. The fees are used to finance a program that identifies the sources of lead contamination, screens children for lead poisoning and helps to treat those children who have been poisoned.

This is a battle I know very well, having worked for five years to pass legislation establishing statewide standards for lead hazard protection in rental housing. Lead poisoning from paint can leave children brain damaged for life. The Sinclair Paint Co. challenged the fee in court, claiming that it was a tax because the fee is imposed on every seller of a harmful product and not solely on a specific company whose particular fault has been established. The court rejected that argument and ruled that fees collected for the purpose of mitigating the harm done by sellers of a product is a reasonable regulatory decision.

Now, the big companies are trying to undo the court's decision with a misleading campaign for Proposition 37, calling the proposition an anti-tax measure. Not only is it incorrect to refer to an assessment fee as a tax, it is 180-degrees misleading. If the companies are not required to participate in cleaning up their own mistakes, it is precisely the taxpayers who will be stuck with the entire bill, which brings us back to the issue of chromium 6.

At the Oct. 24 hearing in Burbank, legislators learned that local governments cannot possibly afford the entire cost of the technology necessary to clean up the water that has been fouled with chromium 6, or to purchase replacement water. If the people of this state are to have safe drinking water, cleanup fees must be imposed on those industries that manufacture and use chromium 6.

It seems only fair that those companies that have made a business decision to use a technique that leaves chromium--50% of which is chromium 6, the harmful kind--in our ground water should then be amenable to a legislatively imposed fee in order to shield the rest of us from the known, harmful consequences of their decisions.

Make a mess, clean it up. The idea of individual responsibility also extends to corporate responsibility.

Our state Supreme Court made a common-sense decision when it ruled that we do not have to prove that each and every company that sells lead-based paint has actually harmed a child in order to impose fees on a dangerous product. That would be like having to prove that anyone caught driving drunk has already harmed someone--or even meant to harm someone--before we can make them get off the road and pay a fine.

What we are learning about the dangers of chromium 6 is only one example of why Proposition 37 is a bad idea. It is bad for public health because it would deny us a source of funds needed to repair the damage caused by the byproducts of our industries. It is bad for taxpayers because it forces us to pay for the bad acts of others. And it is bad policy because it sends a message that, while the rest of us are responsible for our own actions, large corporations can stick us with the bill for cleaning up their messes.

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