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Southern California environment news and trends

California's top toxics regulator Debbie Raphael resigns, returns to San Francisco

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The director of the California Department of Toxic Substance Control has resigned her post after a controversy-heavy three-year tenure.

A trained scientist with more than two decades in the public sector, Debbie Raphael will serve as Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, appointed by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

A statement from the state’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, Matt Rodriquez, praised Raphael for her leadership on the Safer Consumer Products regulatory process, saying she “breathe[d] new life into California’s ground-breaking efforts to keep toxic chemicals out of everyday products.”

When she arrived at the DTSC in May of 2011, safer consumer products regulations were on the ropes, as top toxics officials in the waning days of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration backtracked on making new rules that would have widespread impact on the chemical ingredients in common consumer products. 

In March of this year, the DTSC named three “priority products” for which the state wants to find a safer alternative: a kind of paint stripper, spray foam, and foam sleep mats for children. No new limits have been set on the manufacturing of products in these categories; instead the goal is to encourage manufacturers to voluntarily change their products before enforcement is necessary.

Raphael cut a controversial figure in the communities around the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, where neighbors to the lead-battery recycling plant challenged her at public meetings. 

Last October, Raphael faced down shouting, angry residents of neighborhoods around the plant, who attended a meeting at the Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights just days after the DTSC announced it would cease trying to shutter Exide. She vowed to the audience that the DTSC would remain tough on Exide, even as they were allowed to reopen:  

"If Exide cannot find a way to do that — if they cannot find a way to operate without polluting communities, then we will revoke their permit. You heard it from me." 

RELATED: Regional air regulators step up efforts to shutter Exide's operations in Vernon

Most audience members remained skeptical, shaking their heads and muttering. Her statement received some applause. Exide remains open, but last month issued layoff notices to more than 100 workers at the plant. 

​Raphael leaves some initiatives incomplete. Last July, she announced an initiative for California to cut the amount of toxic waste it dumps in landfills in half within a dozen years.

More generally, Raphael said that when she started, the DTSC's budget was "upside down," and even last summer was describing a department "in crisis mode." In a videotaped message to staff published in July 2013, she described efforts to restore trust in the department:

We've been working hard as a team to identify those problems and in fact we've come up with a list of what we call fundamentals. Because we understand that what we're doing here together is fixing the foundation of this place.

Cal EPA chief Rodriquez, who oversees the DTSC, had only praise for Raphael as she leaves her position. “Debbie brought courage, intelligence and a strong sense of public accountability in leading the Department’s 'Fixing the Foundation' initiative to address these systemic issues,” Rodriquez continues, in his statement. “And while we realize there is still more work to do, the Department has made major strides under her leadership and is in a strong position to continue its progress."

Raphael will finish out the month of May at the DTSC in Sacramento, then return to San Francisco in June.


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