Bent on Clearing the Air : Attorney Mary Nichols hopes ‘Amazing L.A.’ campaign will spur residents to join the fight to keep Los Angeles from choking to death.
Mary Nichols still recalls her first visit to Los Angeles in 1969. It was during a cross-country vacation in a Volkswagen Beetle with another Yale Law School student:
“We got to Los Angeles in the late afternoon. I remember descending into the basin, driving west toward Sunset Boulevard and being astonished by the peculiar color of the air. It was a kind of flaming orange--not a natural color, but a peculiar, day-glo, chemical kind of orange.”
That first smoggy impression was fleeting--Nichols returned to Yale, where her interest was criminal justice system reform.
There was no hint that she would return two years later to become one of California’s first environmental lawyers and a key player in the battle to rescue Los Angeles from ecological degeneration.
Among her career highlights:
* Bringing the first test case under the Federal Clean Air Act in history.
* Heading a major state environmental agency, the Air Resources Board, and serving as state secretary for environmental affairs.
* Opening the Los Angeles office of the prestigious Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the first professional environmental organization to locate here.
* Being appointed to the board of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest municipal utility.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” Nichols, 46, says of a career that has paralleled the escalating environmental movement. “It’s not just the forces in ourselves that determine what we accomplish--it’s also a matter of history.”
But her admirers would say that Mary Nichols gives history some vigorous shoves.
“Everything she did in the ‘70s we are benefiting from today, in terms of cleaning up the air,” says friend Carrie Chassin, who, as then-deputy to Councilman Marvin Braude, monitored air quality regulation activity during that time.
“She’s persistent, she does her homework, she’s a good researcher and has a retentive memory,” says Gladys Meade, a veteran smog fighter and now health director of the state American Lung Assn. “She’s had a lot of opportunities to effect change, which she has done.”
“Air regulations involve transportation, energy, industrial processes, chemistry,” says Mark Abramowitz, formerly of the Coalition for Clean Air, which filed its own clean air suit in the late ‘80s.
“They are the most complicated in the environmental field and she understands them like nobody else.”
Even former adversaries acknowledge her skill and evenhandedness. At Southern California Edison, which waged heated negotiations with the ARB over cutting sulfur emissions, environmental manager Mike Hertel says Nichols was “an extremely competent decision-maker, both fair and tough.”
Now, having pushed for environmental reform on both public and private turfs, Nichols is turning directly to a broader audience--everyone who lives in the Los Angeles basin.
With free-lance writer Stanley Young, she co-authored “The Amazing L.A. Environment: A Handbook for Change,” which she describes as a citizen’s “blueprint for where we are, and where we need to go.”
Sitting in her sunny downtown office, in NRDC’s 11th-floor complex overlooking both the homeless of Pershing Square and a glittering skyline of futuristic new skyscrapers, she discussed the book, which was introduced this week during “Los Angeles Environment Week.”
She sees the book, which was produced by NRDC, as paving the way for the environmental group’s broader involvement in Los Angeles urban life.
A book describing a city’s interconnections is a natural for Nichols, whose interest in social systems started early.
She grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., in an activist household where politics was standard dinner table conversation. (Her father, Benjamin Nichols, is a retired professor, who has just been reelected mayor of Ithaca.) And although her high school goal was to be a writer, she marched in protest against public school air-raid drills, worked with the American Friends Service Committee on peace issues and spent the Civil Rights summer of 1964 with fellow Cornell University students helping to register voters in Fayette County, Tenn.
“I had never been south of Washington, D.C., before,” she recalls. “Our group was scattered throughout the county and I was living in the home of a woman who was a sharecropper.”
The experience shaped her life. Watching others put their lives on the line, she said, not only was a humbling experience it heightened her interest in social activism.
Nichols, who describes herself as “one of these women not afraid to say I’m a feminist,” tried journalism after graduating from Cornell in 1966, hired by the Wall Street Journal as their first woman reporter.
But after a year, she left. “I realized I was more inclined to be an activist than to write about things. I wanted to be out there mixing it up.”
A stint with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, running an experimental program for youthful offenders, convinced her she would be more effective if she had a law degree. “I didn’t (want to) go to law school to represent corporations,” she emphasizes. “I was more interested in reforming the criminal justice system and pursuing social equity.”
Nor was she interested in the environment, which was just emerging as a social concern. “I liked trees just fine, but I didn’t see them as an issue needing my legal focus,” she says.
What changed her focus was moving to Los Angeles in 1971 with her husband, John Daum, whom she’d met in law school. “He had grown up in New York and had fallen in love with Los Angeles, which he thought was a fascinating, dynamic city, clearly destined to be the next financial center of the country.”
Her own forecast was more practical: “I thought, ‘At least I won’t freeze.’ ”
After a brief search, Nichols found the new Center for Law in the Public Interest, a group that was just cutting its teeth on environmental cases.
Staff lawyers already had snapped up the specialties of nuclear power plants, coastal issues and land use. “Nobody wanted to tackle air pollution,” says Nichols, “so I became the air pollution specialist.”
Almost immediately she received a phone call from the mayor of Riverside, asking the center to file a lawsuit against Los Angeles because smog from power plants, refineries and automobiles were blowing downwind to the farmlands of Riverside and San Bernardino.
Nichols’ research couldn’t turn up a legal basis for that suit, but she did discover that Congress had just passed the 1970 Clean Air Act requiring states to implement plans to meet EPA clean air standards by 1975.xx
California, then under Gov. Ronald Reagan, had not prepared a compliance plan, and the state’s air was in violation of every identifiable pollution standard. So Nichols, representing the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino, filed a complaint in federal district court.
That was the first test case under the Federal Clean Air Act. And though the environmentalists won, Nichols notes, the succeeding years of amendments, delays and foot-dragging by both government and the automobile industry made it a victory in name only. But early on, Nichols says, she got “hooked on smog.”
Since that first crash course she has kept current with the voluminous state implementation plans and she can rattle off the polluting interaction times between nitrogen oxides and organic gases with the ease of a chemist. But she still repeats the basic formula: “You’ve gotta emit less.”
That’s what occupied her for the rest of the decade. From 1975 to 1982 she chaired the Air Resources Board (ARB) for Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., whose campaign had included a “blue sky” promise to clean up the air.
The ARB, recalls Nichols, pushed every legal button it could find to fight pollution, from lobbying Congress to strengthen the Clean Air Act to mandating three-way catalytic converters for California cars and double-hose recovery systems on gas station nozzles.
It was a tumultuous time. Nichols recalls ARB hearings in downtown Los Angeles when a convoy of gasoline tanker trucks circled their buildings, or the room filled with Hells Angels protesting motorcycle regulations.
“There was always controversy, but Mary was fairly approachable--she would listen, even if she usually didn’t go along with you,” recalls Pete Jonker of Southern California Gas Co., who unsuccessfully fought ARB’s regulations on refinery tank emissions among other targets.
“I would characterize Mary as a person on an environmental mission. She was going to clean up the damned air, and she was smart enough to realize that if she was going to succeed, she had to work with industry.”
Despite the fireworks, Nichols thinks that the Brown ARB years shaped history.
“Even though we had some setbacks, the groundwork was laid for what’s happening today. And I wasn’t sorry to leave it. By then I was really tired and not thinking fresh thoughts.”
She took time off to regroup after the Brown Administration ended.
“I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to be the main breadwinner in my family,” Nichols said. She and her husband, a Los Angeles attorney, live in the Mid-Wilshire area with their two children, Margaret 13, and Nicholas, 17.
Typical of Nichols’ energetic pace, her idea of a “resting mode” included consulting, free-lance writing, volunteer work for the Sierra Club and teaching environmental law at USC. She also served as president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmentally oriented political action committee.
In 1986, she served as campaign manager for Tom Bradley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid but was replaced after criticism that she was too inexperienced.
“It was overwhelming,” she says. “I was the focal point for a lot of dissatisfaction, and I wasn’t part of the old guard or inner circle. The main thing I learned, which I really should have learned before, is there is a big difference in being a volunteer and paid staff.”
When the NRDC recruited her in the spring of 1989 to set up an office here, it seemed a natural next step. One of the oldest and largest groups geared to public policy reform, the NRDC’s scientists and lawyers have fought to get lead out of gasoline, CFCs out of aerosol sprays and Alar out of apples.
Said NRDC executive director John Adams in a phone interview from his New York office: “We needed someone to articulate the details of what’s needed in an urban environment like Los Angeles.”
Having known Nichols for 20 years as a “friend, environmental activist and intelligent advocate,” he turned to her.
Nichols has built the L.A. staff to three full-time attorneys, two scientists (and a grant for a third), plus interns, law students and volunteers.
“Now we want to focus on the urban environment,” she says, sketching ambitious plans to create new recycling businesses in underemployed urban areas, and develop affordable housing near the places where people work. “The first steps were ‘Save the Redwoods’ and ‘Clean up the Bay.’ But if you’re serious about preserving the environment and the problems are economic, then the solutions are economic.”
After working in the same field 20 years, she acknowledges occasional attacks of doubt, especially at the sluggish pace of change.
"(But) looking around today, I see a large number of people eager to get involved, starting to take city issues seriously. And in the grand scale of making major social change, 20 years isn’t very much.”