The top candidate to lead Southern California's air quality agency is a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who now works as a consultant to industry, The Times has learned.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District board could appoint Wayne Nastri as early as Friday, according to air district sources who were not authorized to discuss personnel matters. Nastri served as administrator of the EPA's Pacific Southwest region from 2001 to 2009, during the George W. Bush administration.
The move comes after Republicans gained a majority on the air quality board earlier this year as part of a campaign to make emissions rules friendlier to businesses. The panel fired longtime executive Barry Wallerstein on March 4 and let stand oil industry-backed rules it adopted in December that govern smog-forming emissions from refineries and other large facilities.
Those decisions have come under attack by state officials and environmental groups, who have raised alarms over the shift toward pollution regulation in the nation's smoggiest basin.
Nastri, who is president of the environmental and energy consulting firm E4 Strategic Solutions, served on the air quality board from 1997 to 1998 as an appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson. Nastri's firm has represented companies with business before the air quality board, including Quemetco Inc., which operates a lead-acid battery recycling plant in the City of Industry.
He drew praise from some environmentalists, who say his credentials and experience with pollution regulation make him well-qualified.
"He has a strong environmental record, a good sense of strategy and an understanding of how important the public is in environmental decision-making," said Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Reynolds worked in recent years with Nastri when he represented opponents of a proposal to dig a massive open-pit gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska.
An audit last year by the U.S. EPA's Office of Inspector General found that regional administrator Nastri made "excessive trips to Southern California and claimed ineligible travel costs" by traveling almost every weekend from the agency's Region 9 offices in San Francisco to his home in Orange County. Of 88 trips Nastri took from October 2006 to January 2009, 51 were to travel home, at a cost of $69,000, the report said.
Nastri could not be reached for comment.
The air quality board's personnel committee voted 4-0 in closed session last week to authorize the agency's general counsel to negotiate a contract and compensation with an unnamed candidate, a report from the March 23 meeting said.
The full air board is scheduled to meet in closed session Friday to consider the appointment, according to a publicly posted agenda.
Board members reached by The Times declined to comment on a personnel matter on the advice of legal counsel.
The change in leadership comes at a critical time for the agency, which is responsible for adopting rules to curb pollution and protect the health of 17 million people across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Staff is preparing a new air quality plan for how the region must cut emissions to meet federal health standards for ozone and fine particulate matter. The plan, due later this year, is expected to stoke considerable debate about what control measures regulators should rely on and which industries and pollution sources should be targeted.
Chief Financial Officer Michael B. O'Kelly has been serving as the air quality board's acting executive since Wallerstein's ouster.