Less than a month after the California Coastal Commission booted its executive director, raising fears that agency would allow more development on the coast, leaders of another key regulatory body are contemplating a personnel change that's raising similar questions about the future of environmental regulation in the state.
On Friday, the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates emissions in Southern California, is scheduled to consider ousting its longtime executive officer, Barry Wallerstein, and appointing an interim agency head. The vote comes a month after Republicans gained a majority on the board with appointees who have vowed to reduce environmental regulations on businesses. And it follows the board's troubling decision last December to overrule a staff recommendation to cut more pollution from oil refineries, power plants and other major polluters, and instead approve an industry-backed plan that made it easier for big operations to keep spewing.
The AQMD has long been considered a national leader in innovative and aggressive regulation — by necessity. Southern California remains the smoggiest region in the nation and has regularly failed to meet federal air quality standards. While the region's air has been improving, too many residents here, particularly in the Inland Empire, still have to cope with an unhealthy level of pollution that can permanently damage children's lungs and raise adults' risk of heart attacks and strokes. San Bernardino and Riverside counties have the highest number of smoggy days in the nation, while coastal communities near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach struggle with toxic diesel pollution from trucks, ships and trains.
The AQMD's 13-member board is comprised of elected officials and appointees from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. While the members reflect the region's geographic and ideological diversity, the board has generally been unified by its mission to protect public health. So there is a real concern that the move to oust Wallerstein signals the new board majority's intention to slow clean air gains and put industry profits above public health. That would be a terrible mistake. It's one thing to argue with the methods used to achieve clean air goals, but quite another to change the goals.
The region has just witnessed the damage that can occur when regulators fail to meet their obligations. Tens of thousands of residents near the former Exide battery recycling plant were exposed to harmful levels of lead and cancer-causing arsenic emissions because state officials allowed the company to operate on a temporary permit for three decades, and AQMD officials failed to require stricter pollution controls. The unprecedented scale of the Exide cleanup could cost California taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This is an environmental injustice that must never be repeated.
The community of Porter Ranch was just exposed to the largest natural gas leak in recorded history because of lax regulations and oversight by state agencies. Supervisor Michael Antonovich, a Republican on the AQMD board who represents the neighborhoods affected by the gas leak, has lambasted state officials for failing to protect public health. He should be wary of any attempt to diminish the air district's commitment to proactive environmental protection.
Critics of the AQMD have complained the agency's rules and mandates have squelched business growth. Highland mayor Larry McCallon, who is a Republican and new member of the AQMD board, told Times' reporter Tony Barboza that “having jobs are just as important for a person's health, for a family's health, as having clean air.” But that's a false choice. California has dramatically cut air pollution since the 1950s and the state has the 8th largest economy in the world. Even after enacting the most ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gases, the state's economy has grown. Factories, oil refineries and other stationary sources of pollution, which are directly regulated by the AQMD, say they are forced to make increasing cuts in emissions despite the fact that cars, trucks and other mobile sources, which are regulated by state and federal authorities, make up a greater proportion of the region's pollution. But cleaning Southern California's air isn't an either/or proposition. It will require cutting all sources of pollution. The AQMD board needs to stay focused on that task.