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California Needs Increased Oversight of Toxic Sites to Safeguard Environmental Health

By Senator Dave Cortese

Senator Dave Cortese

About the Author

Senator Dave Cortese represents District 15 which encompasses much of Santa Clara County in the heart of Silicon Valley. Along with his accomplished career as an attorney and business owner, the Senator previously served on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, the San Jose City Council, and the East Side Union High School District Board.

For decades, the State of California has tracked the location of sites that release hazardous materials into the communities we live in – these toxins pollute the air that we breath, the water that we drink, and the soil our crops depend on.

Known as the “Cortese List” and named after my father, Dominic Cortese, the former legislator who authored the original law that led to its conception in the 80’s, this annually updated inventory of hazardous sites has served to inform the public about the alarming contamination that exists around us.

Posing unquestionable harm to our public health, the chemicals at Cortese List sites are associated with weakened immunity, can cause certain cancers as well as other serious health issues, and are even linked to certain birth defects. They’re not only a risk to humans, they threaten our animal population and ecological system as a whole.

The Cortese List provided information about these sites at a time when nobody knew where they were, leaving planning agencies and developers blind to the potential health risks of families being exposed to contamination. Laying the foundation for future legislation in California to better protect public health, the Cortese List has brought about enhanced safety standards and better public awareness around these hazardous sites. Most significantly, it led to a law that prohibited projects on these sites from being granted exemptions for the environmental review processes required through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Recently, we have seen local agencies skirt this law by granting exemptions under the guise of “common-sense”, allowing projects to be carried out without adequate environmental review. This loophole in existing law is not only a danger to community members living in the surrounding areas, it jeopardizes the safety of the workers on these sites, and has profound public health and environmental impacts.

One of the more egregious cases of a Cortese List exemption being granted is in San Francisco, where a 100-year-old auto body shop slated for condominium development contained levels of substances that far exceeded what is considered safe for human exposure, including benzene levels 900 times above acceptable residential standards.

Our CEQA process is integral to protecting the rights of community members and all impacted parties to understand the environmental and health risk imposed by certain projects right in their backyard. And years of research has demonstrated what we already know - that these hazardous waste sites and polluting industrial facilities are disproportionately located in underserved and underrepresented neighborhoods.

This year, I am pushing our state to take a critical step towards protecting public health and promoting public accountability by ending, once and for all, the abuse of the “common sense” exemption for projects impacting Cortese List sites.

SB 37, The Hazardous Waste Site Cleanup and Safety Act, is a bill I have introduced to carry forward the work of my father that will close the loophole that currently allows “common-sense” exemptions for environmental review on Cortese List sites, and I’m pleased to announce that SB 37 has cleared the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and is one step closer to becoming law.

We cannot continue to allow projects to bypass important CEQA review and put environmental health and worker safety at risk. Pursuing these projects without public accountability and appropriate cleanup creates severe health concerns for laborers working at the site, members of the community that live near the site, as well as our state’s diverse ecosystem.

We must establish long-term sustainable solutions to ensure that all Californian’s are provided the environmental health and safety protections they deserve.