Last Friday was a bad day for clean air. First, the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District voted to fire its longtime executive officer. Then, it reconfirmed its support for a plan to let oil refiners, power plants and other major polluters keep spewing emissions.
The two votes weren't exactly a surprise. The AQMD, which regulates air quality for 17 million people here in the nation's smoggiest region, is governed by a 13-member board comprised of elected officials and appointees from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. New appointees to the board — whose arrival in February gave Republicans a majority on the panel — had pledged to reduce environmental regulations. And the executive officer, Barry Wallerstein, had pushed for strong pollution controls against the wishes of the oil industry and other business groups.
But the decisions mark a troubling turn for an agency that has been a national leader for its innovative and aggressive programs to cut air pollution.
While Southern California's air quality has improved in recent decades, the region still has repeatedly failed to meet federal air quality standards. Too many residents breathe unhealthy levels of pollution that can permanently damage children's lungs and raise adults' risk of heart attacks and strokes. The AQMD's mission is to protect public health and to ensure that Southern California meets federal air quality standards. How can that happen if the board kowtows to industry lobbying?
An upheaval at the AQMD is especially troubling because Southern California could — with smart, committed environmental leadership — make tremendous improvements in air quality in the coming years. The agency is in the process of writing an air quality management plan, laying out new pollution rules and policies that will help the region meet federal public health standards for smog and soot. Critics say the AQMD's regulations over the years have hurt business and cut jobs. But those rules have also spurred innovation and helped attract companies that are developing low-emission and zero-emission engines for cars, trucks and buses. The AQMD has helped create momentum for cleaner technologies, and that shouldn't be jeopardized by short-term thinking.
Southern California voters need to choose elected officials who are committed to clean air. The region doesn't have to choose between healthy air and good jobs. It can have both.