A quarter of the 118 major hazardous waste facilities in California are operating on expired permits that may not meet current standards, just one example discovered by the Los Angeles Times in an investigation that uncovered a gross lack of oversight by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.
The newspaper reviewed departmental inspection reports, internal memos, court records and local fire and health department documents as well as interviewed residents, regulators and business owners as part of its investigation.
The DTSC, a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency, licenses 117 facilities to manage hazardous waste. It regulates about 900 registered businesses that transport it, oversees the cleanup of some 1,000 hazardous substance release sites and monitors the long-term maintenance of about 200 sites where cleanup is complete.
The review found a systematic problem with enforcement of regulations including cases of hundreds of companies walking away from contaminated sites, leaving taxpayers to pay for cleanup costs from hazardous waste. The DTSC admits that it has not tried to collect $140 million in cleanup costs from 1987 through last year.
The department’s use of financial penalties also has declined, the newspaper found. Companies in California agreed to pay fines totaling $2.45 million a year on average between 2008 through 2012, about half the average of the previous five years.
The problems stem from years of staff cuts and turnover at management levels, inconsistent standards and slapdash enforcement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Environmental activists have been critical of the state agency for years. A report released in early 2013 from consumer watchdog group Golden Wasteland, found the DTSC cuts repeated deals out of court with polluters, levies ineffective fines and fails to develop and refer cases for prosecution.
The report , as well as another one by NBC, prompted California lawmakers to call for an investigation. State Sen. Kevin De Leon, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to DTSC director Debbie Raphael saying he had asked the Office of Oversight and Outcomes to investigate the allegations.
Photo Credit: Toxic waste barrels via Shutterstock