New California EPA To Focus Primarily On Enforcement
Department, raised to Cabinet level, unites environmental agencies under one roof
ON the wall of James M. Strock's small corner office here hangs a photo of Eugene D'Allesandro being led away in handcuffs after being arrested for illegal hazardous-waste disposal in 1988."I keep it there because it's a symbol for what this office is all about," says Mr. Strock, who was sworn in last week by Gov. Pete Wilson as head of the new California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA). D'Allesandro's arrest and conviction came during Strock's tenure as chief enforcement officer at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. "You can talk and talk about all these transcendentally important [environmental] issues, but in the end enforcement and stopping real-life activities is what it's all about," he says. Within hours of his swearing-in ceremony, Strock was at work, personally surveying the damage caused by an 11,000-gallon herbicide spill in the Sacramento River. The spilled chemical, metham sodium, has killed more than 100,000 fish on its way to Shasta Lake, a major source of state drinking water. Had the new agency already been in place, claimed Gov. Pete Wilson, the conditions that led to the Southern Pacific freight train spill might never have occurred. The Cal/EPA fulfills Wilson's major campaign promise to "take charge of California's environment in the 1990s." "It will probably be the most significant environmental agency in the country at a state level," says Mike Paparian, a lawyer for the Sierra Club. Strock says the goal of the new EPA is to create a national, even global model that is "smart, tough, creative, vigorous, and fair.... Environmental problems are not divided like environmental laws between air, water, [solid and toxic] waste, pesticides - they cut across the board," he says. "California needs an agency that does so as well." With management of these sectors under a single agency, Strock's mandate is to provide more consistency, less waste, and more results. "You are getting one of the nation's most creative and effective environmental enforcers," said his previous boss at the US EPA, Administrator William K. Reilly. "He is aggressive, yet fair." As assistant administrator for enforcement at the US EPA, Strock won a reputation for strengthening enforcement procedures and for being a conciliatory force between industry representatives and environment- alists. But as Republican special counsel on the US Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee in the mid-1980s, Strock was criticized for offering amendments to environmental legislation that were strongly opposed by some conservation groups.
New structure questioned Though Cal/EPA will have certain jurisdiction over regulation of air quality, water quality, solid and radioactive waste, and toxic chemicals, details of a "rolling reorganization" have been criticized heavily. "I don't think they have the plan well enough thought out," says Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R) of Simi Valley, who voted against the new body in a failed Assembly resolution. "They think they can just come back here and fix it all up with new legislation, they may find it next to impossible." Assemblyman Byron Sher (D) of Palo Alto says the plan isn't perfect either. He thinks the new EPA does not go far enough in separating the functions of toxic chemical risk assessment and risk management. If scientific assessors and "political" managers are under the same roof, he says, each can exert undo influence on the other and taint the process.
'Symbolic value' Others are distraught that the regulation of pesticides, which has long been administered by the state Department of Food and Agriculture would move under Cal/EPA. Further, Assemblyman Sher points out, some of the agencies under Strock's umbrella are, by statute, semiautonomous, and therefore will not come under his direct control. Even so, "this plan is more than just shifting boxes in organizational charts," says Sher. "If nothing else, a one-person, cabinet-level position ... has tremendous symbolic value." Finding himself in the hot seat between business and environmental lobbyists, Strock says "the biggest challenge is change itself. "Business people are telling us, 'Cal/EPA is long overdue, great idea, but before you do it, reform the permit process and give us more appeal rights.' Agriculture says, 'Excellent idea, long overdue - but wait on pesticides regulation, or phase it in over time.' Environmental groups say, 'Excellent idea, do it now but maybe it shouldn't control all the scientific functions. Mr. Paparian of the Sierra Club applauds Cal/EPA's separation of scientific and regulatory functions for toxics. He thinks the same should be done with pesticides. "Not to do so continues an existing problem within state government," he says.
Preventive regulation "If [Strock] can transfer his record of enforcement from [US] EPA to here, we have a great new chance for change," says Tom Soto, president of the Coalition for Clean Air. Mr. Soto says the South Coast Air Quality Management District needs an outside push to reduce regional air pollution by 5 percent to meet federal air quality standards. "To do that, you've got to make sure their plan is publicly reviewed and accountable," says Strock. The new secretary is designing a blueprint to integrate economic and population growth with both increased energy needs and environmental concerns. "There are lots of problems in cleanups and remedial action after the fact," he says. "It's better to design industry programs that prevent pollution before it ever gets to the smokestack."