Chief Prosecutor’s Office OKd in Smog Crackdown
In a move to crack down on polluters, the South Coast Air Quality Management District board on Friday approved a proposal stripping the district’s top legal counsel of jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases and creating a new office of chief prosecutor.
Underscoring the seriousness with which the district is stepping up enforcement, six of the seven attorneys now assigned to AQMD District Counsel Curtis L. Coleman will be transferred to the new chief prosecutor’s office.
“The purpose is to send a clear and unmistakable signal . . . that we’re not going to tolerate those who violate air pollution regulations,” AQMD Executive Officer James M. Lents said Friday.
The reorganization was opposed by Coleman, who has been the district’s top attorney since 1980. Coleman will continue to be responsible for following legislative developments in Sacramento and Washington, defending the district against lawsuits and offering legal advice as the district drafts an unprecedented series of tough new air pollution controls. Initially, his legal staff will be limited to one attorney.
Coleman said he has no plans to resign despite his reservations about the reorganization. “If it doesn’t work out, that’s always a consideration. But I’m commited to do whatever I can to make sure it works out.”
The chief prosecutor will report directly to Lents and will be co-equal with Coleman, who reports to the AQMD governing board. Lents said he expects to appoint the prosecutor by the end of the year. The official’s chief role will be to prepare solid criminal cases for prosecution by local district attorneys and city attorneys in the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Lents said the combination of stepped-up enforcement activities and rule-making was “more than one person can do.” He said the division of legal duties is comparable to county government where the district attorney handles criminal and civil cases and the county counsel advises the Board of Supervisors.
But two other officials said the move was also an attempt to shake up the district’s legal office. These sources, who asked to remain anonymous, said that cases against air pollution violators have backed up from four to six months, making it sometimes difficult to prosecute in view of a one-year statute of limitations. The goal is to move against violators within 60 days of the time they are cited.
One of the officials said that Coleman had “a 10-year institutional memory” and suggested that Coleman’s method of operation predated the district’s new emphasis on enforcement and tougher air quality rules.
Coleman, 39, agreed that he was “trying to juggle too many balls. I’m stretched too thin.” But he said he would have preferred more study before such a major reorganization was undertaken.
In a letter to AQMD board members, Coleman warned that “parallel legal structures” could result in businesses that are regulated by the district to go “opinion shopping” for the most favorable interpretation of air quality regulations.
Meanwhile, the board, in a joint meeting in Industry Hills with the Southern California Assn. of Governments, formally made public its proposed five-year air quality management plan. The final plan, scheduled to be approved by the end of the year, will become the basis for developing new air quality regulations. Several public meetings are scheduled before then to solicit comments on the proposal.
The five-year plan is part of a broader goal to bring the South Coast Air Basin into compliance with federal clean air standards within 20 years. Currently, the basin exceeds the federal standard for ozone, a major component of smog, by as much as three times.
If necessary, board members said, stringent additional measures could be evoked to comply with the standard, including limits on the number of gasoline-powered vehicles in the basin.
In another action, the board approved a rule that for the first time requires operators of 1,940 medium-size and large industrial, institutional and commercial boilers, steam generators and process heaters to control emissions of smog-forming oxides of nitrogen. When the rules are in full effect in 1992, the current emissions of 19.7 tons a day would be reduced to 6.4 tons a day.
Overall, the boilers emit almost 2% of the basin’s 1,040 tons a day of oxides of nitrogen. Last month, the district adopted similar rules for heaters and boilers at oil refineries and plans another rule in the next two months governing emissions from oil refinery heaters and boilers.