Decades of shoddy record-keeping and other administrative failings have prevented California hazardous-waste regulators from collecting nearly $194 million in costs to clean up contaminated sites, state auditors said in a report Thursday.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control did not bill companies and other parties for nearly $142 million and billed but never collected an additional $52 million spent on 1,661 cleanup projects since 1987, California State Auditor Elaine Howle found.
Poor documentation, inadequate billing procedures and misclassification of cleanup site data is "so pervasive that the department has not yet determined the exact amount it may be able to recover," the audit said.
The agency has been under scrutiny since a series of Times stories last year revealed deep flaws in the agency's oversight of hazardous-waste operations, its permitting of facilities and its response to urgent environmental problems. The department also has faced heavy criticism from community groups and state lawmakers for what they say has been a failure to protect residents in some of the state's most polluted communities.
In the highest-profile case, the department has for decades allowed the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, accused last year of endangering more than 100,000 nearby residents with its arsenic emissions, to operate without a full permit.
California Senate President Pro Tem-elect Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who has proposed a bill to strengthen oversight of the department, said in a statement that "the audit shows DTSC is failing in its duty to put the public's health first."
"This department has been too focused on appeasing polluters and major reforms are necessary to ensure DTSC meets its critical mission of protecting the public's health," he said.
Last year, the agency publicly disclosed $185 million in unrecovered cleanup costs, saying that the problem was known internally since the early 1990s but never addressed.
Among recent reforms, the department has instituted new billing, collection and project management procedures to recoup as much of the money as possible, an agency spokeswoman said.
Some of those changes have come too late. The department may never collect about $13 million it is owed for cleanup work because federal and state statutes of limitations have expired, the audit said. And the prospects of recovering an additional $73 million are uncertain because the projects are tied up in litigation and bankruptcy.
Among the cleanup sites with the largest uncollected costs are a former chrome plating facility in Bell Gardens where the soil was contaminated with hexavalent chromium and other toxic metals and a federal Superfund site in Fullerton that served as a disposal area for petroleum refinery waste.
Tamma Adamek, a spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the audit "both validates and guides our efforts to resolve this long-standing issue."
She said the agency's cost recovery problems go back to its early years, when employees were more focused on cleaning up polluted sites than filing paperwork.
"A large portion of this money we were never going to get because there were no viable parties to pay it," Adamek said.