Hazardous Materials Enforcement Hammer

By Loretta Macktal, Executive Assistant to the Vice President, Government Relations

Capitol Update, March 14, 2003 Share this on FacebookTweet thisEmail this to a friend

AB 1640 by Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee Chair John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) raises an age old regulatory question: What level of enforcement authority is necessary to achieve compliance? On the surface, Assemblymember Laird's measure appears to favor a punitive approach to this question. AB 1640 empowers the local fire departments and county health departments responsible for implementing California's six hazardous materials management programs to suspend or revoke permits and shut down facility operations for violations of any permit requirements. The bill does not establish standards governing the exercise of this authority, leaving facilities vulnerable to arbitrary decisions by the agency that do not reflect the gravity of the violation. Moreover, for many manufacturing operations, unplanned process interruptions can create health and safety threats and damage expensive process equipment.

The majority of environmental violations occurring at industrial facilities are minor in nature, resulting in little or no environmental impact. In the mid-1990's, CMTA worked with the Legislature to establish a process in the Health and Safety Code and the Water Code to resolve such violations without the need for punitive enforcement actions. This process requires that minor violations trigger a notice to comply (NTC) from the regulatory agency which allows a 30-day window of opportunity for the facility to correct the violation before the agency can proceed with a formal enforcement action. The minor violations law emphasizes compliance with environmental standards through collaboration and cooperation. Interestingly, while AB 1640 raises the above noted major concerns, it also describes a process that is generally consistent with the minor violations law.

Certainly, if a facility operator is violating a hazardous materials permit condition in a manner that poses an immediate danger to public health and safety, regulators must have the necessary enforcement tools to address that threat. However, for the majority of permit violations, an NTC process will achieve the common objective of restoring compliance, while at the same time providing certainty for permittees and fostering a cooperative working relationship between facility operators and regulators. If this is the intent of the bill, CMTA looks forward to working with the author to achieve that end.
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