Day of Reckoning on Mecca Odor as Lawmakers Make Visit

Children appeal to tour participants as they approach Highway 195  near Duroville. / Omar Ornelas The Desert Sun

Children appeal to tour participants as they approach Highway 195 near Duroville. / Omar Ornelas The Desert Sun.

June, 2011

California lawmakers, holding an oversight hearing in a rural school in Thermal, heard impassioned testimony from residents Friday as well as the concession from a state official that her agency's mishandling of toxic waste permitting at a Mecca processing plant was "embarrassing."

The hearing, held by the state Assembly's Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, also explored why, in a state with some of the nation's strictest hazardous waste standards, investigators failed to enforce against the soil-recycling facility believed responsible for a foul odor that until recently drifted through the area. The facility, Western Environmental Inc., has operated for more than seven years without the required state permits.

The testimony could lead to broad reforms of how regulators handle hazardous waste facilities across California and possibly more enforcement against Western.

Debbie Raphael, testifying during her 11th day as director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control and on her second trip to Mecca since starting the job, declared her agency's handling of Western an "embarrassing situation."

Raphael asked her employees "how that happened, why that happened, who are the people who need to be held accountable" only to get "fingers pointed in different directions," she told the panel.

She has since launched an independent audit by two retired state employees who are familiar with the bureaucracy there but not associated with the agency.

Raphael's predecessor was an acting director for the first months under Gov. Jerry Brown and did not step down because of the DTSC controversy, she added after her testimony.

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