While I was reporting our story today on the regulation gap that surrounds air pollution that falls into our waterways, some people I interviewed said the California Environmental Protection Agency had been created to address issues like it.

CalEPA, which was formed in 1991, is intended to be the umbrella for the six state agencies that have a hand in the environment: the Air Resources Board, State Water Resources Control Board, Integrated Waste Management Board, Department of Pesticide Regulation, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Each has a proprietary focus. CalEPA was formed to give the six agencies a cabinet-level voice.

In the case of our story, though, state officials acknowledged their individual regulatory powers had a gap: the airborne metallic dust from brakes and tires that falls out of the air into waterways and streams.

Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, said CalEPA was designed to prevent such gaps.

I heard back today from Terry Tamminen, a former CalEPA secretary, who said the 16-year-old agency has “done a poor job of integrating” the state’s varied regulations.

Tamminen, now a policy advisory to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, pointed to MTBE water pollution as an example of the difficulties of addressing pollution that crosses between air and water.

MTBE, methyl tertiary-butyl ether, was added to gasoline in 1979, as a replacement for lead. The toxic chemical helped gasoline burn more effectively — a boost to air quality — but it seeped from storage tanks into groundwater drinking supplies. (Tests of rats and mice have shown that drinking MTBE can damage the liver and kidney and affect the nervous system.)

But Tamminen said CalEPA has made progress in its mission, pointing again to MTBE, which was banned from California gasoline in 2004.

“When I went in as secretary, MTBE was the poster child for our failure to always coordinate,” he said. “We’ve made some real progress on that and it continues.”

Tamminen acknowledged the problems posed by aerial deposition of air pollution into waterways. But he said the phenomenon is poorly understood and needs more research funding. Regulators have to first understand the science before dealing with the issue.

“It is a growing problem,” he said. “And it’s a bigger problem when there isn’t a responsible party.”


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