Environmental bills back for another go-round

Arnold Schwarzenegger was often called the “Green Governor.” But lots of Democrats appear to think their environmental legislation has a lot better chance under the new guy — and they’re reviving several bills that Schwarzenegger killed in the past.  

In the seven weeks that have passed since Gov. Jerry Brown was sworn in, Democratic lawmakers have introduced numerous pieces of legislation that the previous governor either vetoed or opposed so strongly that he helped make sure they never made it to his desk. Other legislators are putting forward bills urging Brown to reverse changes in environmental policy pushed through in the final days of the Schwarzenegger administration.

In particular, these efforts are focused on chemical legislation. The highest-profile bill is probably SB 147 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. This bill would change the fire resistance test used on furniture and bedding by the state Bureau of Home Furnishings.

Called the Consumer Choice Fire Safety Act, the bill is all about a set of chemicals that don’t actually appear in its text — brominated fire retardants which, numerous researches say bio-accumulate in the body, leading to cancer, birth defects and other problems. By changing the flammability test from the bedding inside furniture — a standard essentially only used in California — to a test on furniture coverings, Leno believes he could reduce toxic harm to citizens without leading to any new fire deaths.

It’s apparently something he’s thought about  for awhile — since he introduced the idea in 2009 as SB 772 and in 2007 as AB 706. He’s hoping that the third time — and the second governor — will be a charm.

On Jan. 31, he rolled out the new legislation with a large group of scientists and environmentalists, many of whom had appeared at previous events for his earlier legislation. Leno’s efforts on fire retardants were met with opposition letters from the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and several of the agencies operating underneath them.

Of Schwarzenegger, Leno said, “If you look at all of the bills that reached his desk that were deemed to be of high priority to environmental activists, he was mediocre at best. And also quite inconsistent, which I think is a theme we can see throughout his administration.”

By the standards of California Republicans, Schwarzenegger was unquestionably friendly to environmental legislation.

“He seemed okay on climate change but he was not open to even learning about toxic flame retardant issues,” said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley, the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, and one of Leno’s main allies in pushing the flame retardant legislation.  “I have hopes for this governor.”  

Another legislator who received opposition letters from state agencies working under the administration was Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. He’s also brought back two key pieces of legislation that failed under Schwarzenegger, though with some changes.

Simitian’s SB 178 would authorize the state’s Green Ribbon Science Panel to take a more aggressive role in working with the Department of Toxic Substances Control to evaluate and strengthen rules relating to the former governor’s Green Chemistry Initiative.

Reached in November during the closing days of the Schwarzenegger administration, Simitian said that the governor was often good when it came to supporting legislation, but less good at follow-though on the agency level. AB 178 seeks to help address the follow-through portion of Green Chemistry going forward under the new governor.

“A signature on your bill is the first step rather than the last step in the process,” Simitian said.

Green chemistry refers to practice of phasing out dangerous chemicals for less toxic alternatives. Schwarzenegger was widely hailed for the initiative, but critics frequently claimed the effort wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be — and that it was used rhetorically against “chemical-by-chemical” legislation put forward by Democrats.

SB 178 doesn’t follow directly from any bill vetoed by Schwarzenegger. But Simitian has had several bills relating to toxic chemicals regulation stall out in recent years, often after being opposed by the Schwarzenegger administration, as have Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, and other Democrats.

In 2006, Simitian was able to pass, and Schwarzenegger signed, SB 107, which called on utilities in the state to be producing 20 percent renewable power by the end of 2010.

Simitian has tried repeatedly to follow this up with a 33 percent standard by 2020. After his SB 410 died in the Assembly in 2008, he was able to get his SB 14 on the governor’s desk in 2009, only to see it vetoed. Simitian has brought the idea back again this year as SB 23 and SB X1 2.

Environmentalists have also been pointing to several actions taken or allowed by the Schwarzenegger administration in the closing days. In December, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) relaxed controls on diesel emissions. That same month, Schwarzenegger personally showed up at a CARB meeting to speak in favor of a cap-and-trade regime for greenhouse gas emissions which was widely disliked by environmentalists for being too permissive.

No one appears to have taken on these issues directly with legislation, yet. But many are urging administrative action on several issues.

On Tuesday, Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Santa Cruz, held a press conference to urge Brown to act administratively to restrict methyl iodide. The Department of Pesticide Regulation approved the chemical in December for use on strawberries and other types of fields, despite urging by six Nobel laureates to bar the chemical.

Paul Towers is state director of the group Pesticide Watch, a key supporter of Monning’s effort. He said that legislation to ban the chemical probably wouldn’t even pass until next year, and would go into effect even later, which is why they’re urging Brown to act now to both bar the chemical and place good environmental stewards at the top of state environmental agencies.

“The legislative process moves too slowly,” said Towers. He added: “We’re hoping for new leadership at the department of pesticide regulation.”

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