News

Lieber pushes Cal/EPA for toxics report

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, has been pressuring one of California’s lead environmental agencies to release a workplace-toxics report that is a year overdue. She said the report likely will validate one of her bills, which is currently at risk of dying in committee, and said that the delay could be “politically motivated.”

A spokesman for the agency in question, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said the report is being revised via normal processes and will be released soon.

The report in question, called the Occupational Health Hazard Assessment Project, originated in the state Department of Health Services in 2004. Under the deal, one of the divisions under DHS, the Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service, paid $51,509 to OEHHA.

In return, OEHHA was to identify chemicals that were regulated as harmful in the environment, but for which workplace standards were limited or lacking entirely, then develop comparable workplace standards. The contract between the state agencies called for the results to be delivered two years ago, but was renegotiated to be call for delivery one year ago this week.

In the meantime, Lieber authored legislation this year designed to leverage the results of the report. AB 515 would require OEHHA to develop workplace-toxics standards for the chemicals in the report by next February. The bill made it out of the Assembly and through two Senate committees. But the bill’s opponents hope to stall it in the Senate Appropriations Committee; it must get out by the end of the month or die for the session.

“After a year-long delay, it is starting to look politically motivated,” Lieber said.

On August 1, Lieber sent a letter sent to OEHHA director Joan Denton “requesting a copy of the final report produced as a result of contract #04-35755.” Near the end of the letter, she stated “As I understand it, this project has been completed for some time now.”

Not so, said Sam Delson, deputy director of OEHHA. He said there have been “a lot of revisions, additions and reviews” as it worked its way around the California Environmental Protection Agency, of which OEHHA is a part.
“The report has not yet received final approval,” Delson said. “As soon as it does, we hope to release it to the public.”

When asked when that might be, Delson added, “It might be a week. It might be a month.”

A month might be too late, Lieber said. Much of the stated opposition to her bill from industry has focused on the cost of implementation–and several people familiar with the bill said the cost could be extensive. But a potentially big part of this cost would come from the development of standards, Lieber noted–the very same standards that should already be laid out in the report.

Some in the environmental community point to a converging set of factors that could result in very strict workplace limits on these chemicals. The contract frequently references Proposition 65. Passed by state voters in 1986, it calls for OEHHA to maintain a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. There are standards for the concentration of these chemicals that can be released into water or the environment.

“But if you’re in the workplace, there’s no warning,” said Jeremy Smith, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, which supports the bill.

Many of these chemicals have been tested for workplace exposures, but only for lesser health effects such as causing headaches or respiratory inhalation, not for cancer or reproductive harm. Since a 1980 federal Supreme Court case known as AFL-CIO v. Marshall, workplace exposure limits set by the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health must adhere to “one in 1,000” standard. That is, they bar exposure levels beyond what would cause one extra cancer or reproductive defect per 1,000 workers.

Some in the scientific and activist community have sought to replicate the overdue report’s finding using toxicology data from OEHHA’s publicly available information. According to their calculations, whenever the report is finally released, it is likely to show that numerous chemicals on the so-called “Prop. 65 list” would almost certainly exceed the one in 1,000 workplace cancer risk used by OSHA; many would show an estimated 50 to 300 excess cancers per 1,000 workers exposed at current OSHA permissible exposure limits (PEL).

In other words, releasing this report could lead to workplace safety standards for numerous chemicals that are far stricter than existing standards, said Fran Schreiberg, co-founder and attorney for the environmental group Worksafe. Schreiberg said that she believed the delay was coming from high up in the administration.

“If we had known it was going to be this difficult to shake this report loose, we would have taken a more legalistic approach,” Schreiberg said. “I don’t think this administration cares about workplace safety and health.”

Jim Houston, a lobbyist with the industry-supported Business and Government Solutions Group, said his group has been working against Lieber’s bill for three years; last session, Lieber submitted very similar legislation as AB 815. He said the bill elevates OEHAA over the environmental-standards process and denies industry and competing science a place at the table.

“I think the sponsors are making it their contention that the work has already been done and it’s up to OEHHA to set standards,” Houston said.
Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for the California Chamber of Commerce, echoed these thoughts. AB 515, he said, “creates an expensive, duplicative process” that seeks to subvert workplace standards set out by the Cal/OSHA and removes the ability of industry to have input.

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at
malcolm.maclachlan@capitolweekly.net


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