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Racist Emails Raise Doubts over Toxics Agency's Management

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Racist emails cast a cloud on an agency's commitment to protect communities of color from pollution like that from Chevron's Richmond refinery, shown here on fire in 2012 | Photo: Steven Schiller/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The state's lead toxics cleanup agency is in hot water over a series of racially derogatory internal emails by senior agency staff. The emails between two senior scientists at the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), obtained by the group Consumer Watchdog after Public Records Act requests, include racial and class-based slurs directed toward communities of color, as well as individual colleagues.

The emails were sent between 2013 and this year between a senior engineering geologist and a toxicologist charged with working on soil- and water-borne pollutants at Superfund sites and other polluted locations. Consumer Watchdog representatives charge that the emails may show a lack of true concern for the welfare of the communities most vulnerable to the kind of pollution DTSC is charged with regulating.

DTSC, a sub-agency of the California Environmental Protection Agency, has been criticized by activists or downplaying the risk from industrial pollution in communities of color, most recently including legacy lead contamination in Vernon from the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant.

One email exchange in particular would seem to support the activists' charge that the DTSC scientists at issue don't take community concerns about toxic exposure seriously. In response to an emailed announcement of a Southern California Edison webinar covering ways to assess toxic vapor intrusion into buildings in Alhambra, the DTSC geologist -- a 22-year veteran of the agency -- sent a note to the toxicologist that read "Maybe we should attend this so we can learned the protocols for kollectin gud data."

The toxicologist, whose email signature line identifies him as Southern California Unit Chief for the division of DTSC charged with cleaning up the urban industrial sites known as "brownfields," replied: "Thez wrong: thez all needs to be learned about biased interpretations of data and hand written peak identification...chemicals are identified based on what you believe is there."

Other email exchanged between the two scientists include mockery of colleagues' Asian-influenced names, references to hiring "crackhos" while attending conferences, and one October 2014 note from the toxicologist urging the geologist to hurry up on a project with the words "chop chop Hop Sing," attaching a portrait of actor Victor Sen Yung in costume as the aforementioned character from the TV show Bonanza.

The emails had apparently come to the attention of DTSC management before activists learned about them, as evidenced by an August 2015 video of DTSC head Barbara Lee taking staff to task over unspecified racist emails. In the video, Lee reassures those in attendance that she's not looking for "a sanitized political correctness," adding:

"There are things we have all put in emails, and then when someone says 'did you really, really mean this?' and we look at it and we say 'Oh, no, no, that's not, it doesn't mean that, like, what it looks like!' But we don't have the opportunity, when it's gone out in a Public Records Act request, to do that."

Lee did say at that meeting that she has "zero tolerance" for racism among her staff, but couched her recommendations for better behavior in largely PR terms.

On Wednesday, more than three dozen activist groups co-signed a letter sent to Governor Jerry Brown by Penny Newman of the Inland Empire-based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) calling for a probe of DTSC to determine whether such attitudes permeate the agency, and whether those attitudes affect the agency's work in communities of color. That letter read, in part,

If DTSC staff members feel comfortable enough to use their state issued computer to send overtly racist emails, racial insensitivity and bias must be embedded within the very culture of DTSC. DTSC works closely with communities of color throughout the state. In fact, hazardous waste facilities are overwhelmingly located in poorer, predominantly non-white communities. Over 80 percent of residents living near a hazardous waste facility in California are non-white, the largest percentage of any state in the U.S.

This isn't the first time DTSC has been accused of taking the concerns of communities of color less than seriously; this summer, Governor Brown vetoed far-reaching reform legislation that would have reshaped the agency, which had allowed Exide Technologies and other polluters to operate without permits.

As a sop to activists outraged by the veto, Brown established an Independent Review Panel this summer to examine dysfunction at DTSC. "We are concerned that thousands of families across this state may be in harm's way or forced to live in dangerous situations due in part to the racist attitudes, judgment and actions of DTSC staff," CCAEJ's Newman told the Panel. Long-time environmental justice activist Gideon Cracov, appointed in Spetember to lead the Independent Review Panel, says they will be looking into the emails.

It's unclear what measures, if any, have been taken to impress the importance of cultural sensitivity on the scientists in question. State Senate President pro tem Kevin de León told the Los Angeles Times that he has been assured by California's Secretary for Environmental Protection Matthew Rodriquez that the two scientists have been "disciplined," though the extent of that discipline is apparently unknown outside DTSC.

De León told the Times he thought the emails were "appalling and inappropriate."

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