Over strong objections from environmentalists, the Southland's air quality board continued its shift toward more business-friendly regulation Friday by choosing an industry consultant as its new executive.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District board voted unanimously in closed session to appoint Wayne Nastri to serve as executive officer under a six-month contract as the agency searches for a permanent hire.
Nastri, who was administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Southwest region during President George W. Bush's administration, has most recently worked as president of the environmental and energy consulting firm E4 Strategic Solutions.
The firm has represented companies before the South Coast air district. Nastri said he would resign from the firm and sever all financial interests with it before starting work at the air district next week. He will be required to recuse himself from decisions involving clients he has represented.
Board members said they chose Nastri to lead the pollution control agency based on his decades of experience and environmental expertise.
The appointment culminated a heated public meeting in Diamond Bar punctuated by outbursts from dozens of environmental activists, many from some of the region's most polluted communities.
Protesters sharply criticized recent decisions by the board and what they say has been a shift in priorities since Republicans gained a majority on the air quality board this year and vowed to make pollution regulations easier on businesses.
Adrian Martinez, an attorney for Earthjustice, faulted the board for hiring someone that "made a career out of using his government experience to influence and lobby regulators on behalf of his corporate clients."
The decision "raises serious red flags and indicates that the board may continue its efforts to cozy up to heavily polluting industries," Martinez said.
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Air quality board Chairman William A. Burke repeatedly sparred with environmentalists as he defended the agency's progress in cleaning the nation's smoggiest air.
"You can't come up here and say we're not doing our job," Burke told one speaker. He denied that the agency's new leadership would mean a scaling back on clean air or that it "will change the mission, change the direction or change the face of this board in any way."
A priority for the district's new executive will be a new clean air plan due later this year that must demonstrate how the region will meet health standards for ozone and fine particles, pollutants that can trigger asthma, heart disease and premature deaths.
In a brief interview, Nastri touted his experience dealing with state and federal regulators that have authority over vehicles and other sources that generate much of Southern California's air pollution. He said he would listen to both industry and community representatives and "be very innovative moving forward."
The board last month fired longtime executive Barry Wallerstein and let stand previously adopted emissions rules for oil refineries, power plants and other large facilities that have been criticized by environmentalists, state regulators and lawmakers as harmful to health.
In December, the board rejected a staff proposal to reduce the cap on nitrogen oxide pollution from such facilities by 14 tons per day in favor of a 12-ton reduction supported by the Western States Petroleum Assn.
Burke said Friday that oil refineries and other businesses would have paid billions of dollars for pollution control equipment to achieve the 14 tons per day reduction. He said those industries would be forced to pass the cost to consumers in the form of higher prices for gasoline, food and "everything you touch."
The meeting was disrupted briefly when about 10 protesters from the Sierra Club, wearing clown suits and photos of Republican board members labeled "April Fool," rose from their seats. The protesters were ushered out of the hearing room by security.
"Dirty air is no joke, and we ask you to take these issues seriously," said Lizette Hernandez, a Sierra Club member from South Los Angeles whose 8-year-old son suffers from asthma. "We're going to continue to do this if you continue to ignore our requests."
As head of the agency responsible for curbing air pollution across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Nastri will oversee a staff of about 800 people. He will earn an annual base salary of $271,000, plus benefits and the use of an air district car.
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