SAFE DRINKING WATER. California's toxic-waste law difficult to implement

When California voters approved a sweeping law last November regulating the disposal of toxic chemicals, proponents hailed it as a landmark in the struggle to ensure safe drinking water - one that would inspire a ``tap water rebellion'' across the country. But after five months the law is far from being implemented. The delay is mainly due to disagreement over how to determine which chemicals are toxic to humans.

For weeks, California Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican who opposed the initiative, has been at odds with environmentalists and other proponents over whether chemicals to be controlled under the law should include only those said by researchers to cause cancer in humans or whether to also include those said to cause cancer or birth defects in laboratory animals.

Mr. Deukmejian has taken the more restrictive definition and come up with a ``short list'' of 29 substances. Authors of the measure contend the law applies to chemicals proved to be harmful to animals, which would mean a list of at least 250 substances.

Much of the spotlight in the debate has shifted to a scientific advisory panel appointed by the governor. At its first meeting earlier this month the group - to the chagrin of environmentalists - did not add to the list, though some members suggested the roster might be expanded soon.

Whatever the outcome, it will likely have far-reaching public-health and economic consequences not only in California, but elsewhere in the United States. At least 10 states are drafting or considering controls on chemicals similar to Proposition 65, as the California initiative was called. How it is put into effect here will help shape the debate and the proposals put forth elsewhere.

``Everybody realizes this thing has national impact, even as it stands now,'' says David Roe, a staff lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Under Prop. 65, businesses are required to put warning labels on consumer products and post signs in workplaces where listed materials are present. Companies would also be prohibited from dumping large amounts of the chemicals where they could wind up in drinking-water supplies.

Businesses and agricultural interests have argued that drinking water is protected by existing laws and that the new strictures will add millions to operating costs.

Despite a costly media blitz by opponents, the law was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November.

Governor Deukmejian compiled his list of chemicals to be covered initially under the law, limited to substances known to cause problems in humans, based on the advice of a state attorney. That approach also was advocated by industrial and agricultural interests. But some of the governor's own public health specialists, as well as the authors of Prop. 65, objected to the method.

Proponents of the law contend that the governor should have added more than 200 cancer-causing chemicals identified by two respected scientific groups referred to indirectly in the initiative. The governor says the scientific panel is better equipped to decide which chemicals should be added - a move critics see as a delaying tactic.

``The law says you must start with the 250,'' Mr. Roe says. ``If they do what the governor wants, they will be redoing the best work of the best cancer agencies in the world.''

At its early April meeting the panel mulled what standards ought to be used in deciding which chemicals cause health problems. Although no substances were added to the list, panel chairman Wendell Kilgore of the University of California, Davis, suggested more might be at the next meeting, probably in May. But there will likely be no big changes right away.

``No one is going to stampede this scientific group into making any quick decisions,'' Mr. Kilgore says.

A group of environmental and labor organizations, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with a lawsuit aimed at forcing the governor to expand the initial list.

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