Environmentalists rally to save OEHHA

Faced with the loss of a key agency tasked with protecting consumers from environmental threats, environmentalists did one of the things they do best: fundraising.

The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) was one of those targeted for elimination under a reorganization plan submitted by the Schwarzenegger administration as it seeks to close at $24 billion state budget deficit. The governor's plan would have zeroed out the $8.3 million in general fund revenue OEHHA received annually.

Last week, the Senate Environmental Quality Committee voted 3-2 along party lines in favor of an alternative plan to save the OEHHA by tapping other funds. Committee staff will now begin drafting a trailer bill to put the plan into legislation.

The Senate EQ proposal came in response to a call for alternative cuts sent out by the Budget Conference Committee as it seeks to craft a budget deal. It was championed by several environmental groups, who lobbied at the hearing and behind the scenes. These included the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Breast Cancer Fund.

"The money comes from an assortment of existing funds that are all dedicated towards the work that OEHHA is doing," said Bill Magavern, director of the Sierra Club California. He added, "We're talking about a relatively small amount of money here."

The plan calls for the health hazard functions of the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to be moved into OEHHA, as well as similar functions in a children's health initiative run by Cal-EPA. Other sources likely to come up in the trailer legislation include funds created under the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act (TOSCA) and the state Air Pollution Control Account.

The money and resources of these programs would fill in most of the general fund money OEHHA is slated to lose, about $6.7 million. OEHHA also receives about $11.5 million in special fund money annually, about 62 percent of its budget, but the governor's proposal called for the agency to be eliminated entirely.

OEHHA is the main body charged with figuring out the danger of environmental hazards. It is seen as a key player in the governor's Green Chemistry Initiative, a massive effort to determine the health harm caused by thousands of different chemicals and propose alternatives.

Magavern said the decision to single out OEHHA was "strange" and "poorly thought out," but added that he didn't think the administration was "not particularly out to get OEHAA." While he said he has not had any discussions with the administration, he said "there is strong support in the Legislature."

Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, said that while there wasn't any evidence that businesses had been "whispering in the governor's ear" before he submitted the plan, the type of work OEHHA does has put it in industry crosshairs.

"It certainly has rubbed a number of chemical companies the wrong way," Holober said. "I'm sure they'd be happy to see it put out of business."

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