One reason Gov. Jerry Brown flew to Washington last week was to promote California’s environmental policies in the run-up to international climate talks in Paris in December.
Environmentalists view Brown – and California – as a leader in the field, and as heads of state prepare to negotiate a global climate treaty in France, Brown told reporters at the White House, “I want to be as helpful as I can in advancing that agenda.”
This is a typical message Brown carries when traveling out of state. But as the Democratic governor worked in Washington, his administration was coming in for a clobbering on environmental concerns back home.
In hearings at the Capitol last week, lawmakers excoriated Brown’s staff for letting oil drillers inject wastewater into wells in protected aquifers and for allowing a battery recycler in Southern California to operate under a temporary permit for decades while emitting hazardous waste.
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The hearings reflect increasing scrutiny of Brown’s management of the state’s environmental agencies – and a point of pressure the Legislature has begun to press on Brown.
“Frankly, between the issues of a lack of strong enforcement and a lack of consistency in permitting – and long overdue reform of the department – it’s really time to hear what the administration plans to do to change all of that,” Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said at a hearing on the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Los Angeles County.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said “those who have let this happen must be held accountable.”
De León’s remarks came a day after the U.S. attorney’s office announced an agreement with Exide requiring the company to permanently close its battery recycling facility in Vernon and to pay $50 million to clean up the site and surrounding area. The facility has been offline since last year, and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control said it was in the process of denying permission to reopen.
In a separate committee room, lawmakers pounced on admissions by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources that the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may not have followed regulatory procedures when they first agreed in the 1980s to allow wastewater injection into wells in protected aquifers.
Bob Wieckowski, chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, said it “appears that this administration has known about this for at least four years, and it is only taking corrective steps to assess and stop contamination now.”
Wieckowski, D-Fremont, asked, “How is this possible?”
It is unclear how forcefully the Democratic-controlled Legislature will continue to push Brown on Exide and wastewater management. But last week’s hearings come at the start of annual budget negotiations at the Capitol, and the lawmakers’ tone suggests they are weary of characterizations of Brown as a prudent counterforce to their less judicious impulses.
De León said he was “elated” that a budget committee that “oversees the purse strings for this specific agency” was hearing the Exide issue jointly with the Senate’s panel on environmental quality. Wieckowski pointed out that the administration’s wastewater shortcomings occurred even as the state sought voter approval of a $7.5 billion water bond last year.
For the Legislature, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, the hearings represented “an opportunity to remind the governor that he’s not omnipotent.”
Administration officials said they were taking steps to improve oversight, and Brown appointed new leadership within the state’s oil and gas division and toxic substances department last year.
“Protecting public health and California’s groundwater resources is our primary goal, particularly in this time of unprecedented drought,” Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said. “The administration takes very seriously any practices that undermine our efforts to achieve that goal.”
Barbara Lee, director of the toxic substances department, said, “We certainly have had problems.” But while acknowledging her division’s “poor reputation right now,” Lee said she is “very optimistic” it will recover.
Both Exide and controversies within the state’s oil and gas division predate Brown’s tenure, a point administration officials made last week. Laird, speaking at the wastewater hearing, said it was “not the only place where I inherited a few messes that had been going on for 10 or 15 years.”
Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, agreed with Laird’s assessment. But it has been more than four years since Brown took office in 2011.
While “the problems didn’t begin with his administration,” Phillips said, “he hasn’t been very effective at fixing it.”
Steve Merksamer, who was Republican Gov. George Deukmejian’s chief of staff, praised Brown for surrounding himself with “very high quality people” and characterized the issues raised last week as relatively minor compared to controversies that can cripple an administration.
Brown has downplayed management concerns. In 2013, he called revelations that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hid settlement funds in a nonprofit account a “boring story.”
When transportation officials disclosed massive bolts had broken on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Brown said engineers were reviewing the problem, but he added, “I mean, look, s--- happens.”
Schnur, who worked in Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration and ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state last year, said “every administration has management problems” and that “it is typically impossible for a governor and his or her senior staff to oversee every individual in every department.”
However, Schnur said, “Brown tends to be somewhat more dismissive of those types of problems than most.”
To Huey Johnson, Brown’s Natural Resources Agency secretary in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Brown was governor before, this is a mistake.
“Whatever went wrong, it’s on his watch and it’s his responsibility,” Johnson said. “He issues directives and sets the tone.”
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.