Mixed messages in the air

Times Staff Writer

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger travels the world exhorting countries to act quickly to reduce harmful gas emissions, his administration is helping California’s construction industry stall tough new air quality rules at home.

In public hearings and private negotiations, administration transportation officials are working to slow a planned crackdown by regulators on aging diesel construction equipment -- among the state’s most noxious machinery and a major source of greenhouse gases.

The officials successfully lobbied a board appointed by the governor to delay voting on draft regulations for dealing with the polluters. The officials argued that the new rules, years in the making, were too tough on the construction industry -- which is a major Schwarzenegger donor.


Last week, the governor fired the board’s chairman, who said he was let go after pushing ahead with aggressive pollution curbs. The administration said the chairman was fired because he wasn’t tough enough -- a claim environmentalists find dubious. On Monday, the board’s executive officer quit with a sharply worded criticism of the administration.

The departed air board officials said they were frustrated by administration meddling in both the diesel construction equipment crackdown and the implementation of landmark legislation the governor signed last year to curb global warming.

It is not the first time the governor has made bold promises on the environment while his administration dragged its feet behind the scenes. Schwarzenegger has vetoed bills that would put new taxes on polluters, spur the development of alternative fuels and help clean the air. He has accepted $1 million in campaign cash from the oil industry, and he had threatened to veto the global warming bill unless it was made more business-friendly.

Although the governor says he wants to hold polluters more accountable, administration officials recently signaled lawmakers that Schwarzenegger may not support a separate legislative crackdown. Lawmakers are proposing to prohibit the dirtiest equipment from being used on public works projects bankrolled with state bond money approved by voters last year.

Going slow on goals

Environmentalists say the governor’s lofty goals clash with his administration’s go-slow approach on construction equipment, which could put California out of compliance with minimum federal clean-air requirements and make a mockery of his repeated pledge to reduce state air pollution by half.

“He’s not going to get there if they water down these regulations,” said Kathryn Phillips, an advocate with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

Schwarzenegger says he’s just trying to be realistic.

“We have to have the ramp-up time and look at always what technology is available and how we can meet a certain goal,” the governor said in a recent interview. “It is walking a fine line.”

Fumes from heavy diesel construction equipment are linked to tens of thousands of cases of asthma and 1,100 deaths annually, state studies show. Scientists and economists say staying in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act would cost the industry more than $3 billion over the next two decades. Construction companies say it could be at least three times that amount.

“We don’t believe the technology is evolving fast enough” to do what the new state regulations would require, said Mike Lewis of the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition, a trade group. “We’re not arguing with the goal. But you are asking us to replace 85% of our equipment by 2020. We don’t believe there is enough money in the industry to do this.”

Construction companies and builders have buried regulators with letters and e-mails saying the regulations would put them out of business.

Officials at the Air Resources Board, a state entity that enforces environmental laws, say the costs are manageable for a multibillion-dollar industry whose business is about to boom because of a surge in public works spending.

They also say a delay could cost the state $1.2 billion in lost federal transportation funding.

The 112,000 tractors, excavators, backhoes and other construction vehicles that regulators are targeting are the second-largest source of diesel pollution, after trucks and buses, in California. The rules drafted by the Air Resources Board would require construction firms, over the course of several years, to replace their dirtiest equipment or retrofit the machines with devices that capture soot.

Doing so, state scientists say, would avoid hundreds of deaths each year and thousands of cases of asthma. Such a move would cut smog and curb the release of greenhouse gases.

It also would arguably heed the governor’s call to spur the economy with tough environmental rules that create a need for new technologies -- technologies that could be developed by the state’s budding “clean tech” industry.

“Technology, in the end, is going to save the day,” the governor said at a news conference in London on Tuesday. “The faster we can improve technology with the green cars, green engines and so on, the better it is.”

A few weeks earlier, however, top administration officials were encouraging the Air Resources Board to step on the brakes and consider industry pleas to push back the cleanup deadlines.

Small-business concerns

Gregg Albright, deputy director of the state Department of Transportation, said at a May hearing that the administration is “very concerned about the impacts on small business.” He also expressed concern that the draft rules would drive up the cost of building roads and other infrastructure.

“When the industry says to us that this has an effect, even a modest effect, on cost ... we listen,” Albright said.

The construction industry has developed close ties with Schwarzenegger. It worked with him to pass the $37-billion public works bonds that he championed, taking a lead role in the campaign to pass the measures and contributing more than $6 million to the effort.

Construction companies and related industries also directly contributed at least $1.3 million to the governor’s reelection campaign and kicked in tens of thousands of dollars after the election to help pay for the governor’s inauguration celebrations.

Environmentalists were dismayed to see the air board put off its vote from late May until mid-July so the effect on industry could be examined more fully. And they were chagrined that the administration, through Albright, offered to spend the weeks leading up to the vote working to give industry more of a voice in the regulations.

The state officials who drafted the regulations noted at the hearing that they had been taking input from the construction industry for more than two years and carefully considered it in the rules they wrote.

“These emission reductions are absolutely needed to address public health,” said Catherine Witherspoon, the air board’s executive officer. “Doing less or waiting longer will mean more people will breathe unhealthy air, suffer adverse health effects and will also delay attainment of the federal air standards.”

According to internal memos obtained by The Times, the administration sought in early June to have Witherspoon removed from her job, but the board declined to fire her. Within weeks, board Chairman Robert Sawyer -- already at odds with the administration over how aggressively to combat global warming -- was fired. Witherspoon resigned Monday.

Administration officials acknowledge that they were displeased by some of Sawyer’s actions. But they said they were troubled most by his board’s vote to seek a delay on certain federal air quality standards in the San Joaquin Valley.

Lawmakers lobbied

But meanwhile, the administration was lobbying the Legislature against limiting construction equipment emissions. Caltrans Director Will Kempton cautioned lawmakers against requiring contractors to use cleaner equipment in projects funded with state bond money.

“I’m concerned that by putting these kinds of requirements in place, we will be impacting the level of competition” in the bidding process for state projects, he said. “The governor made clear he wants all people to share in the benefits” of the public works funded by the bonds.

Lawmakers moved the requirement for cleaner machines along anyway, and it is now part of state budget negotiations. But it would not take effect unless the governor signed off on it.

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who drafted the legislative proposal, said he still hoped the governor would do so. He called Kempton’s testimony “inconsistent with the governor’s positions on global warming and climate change.”

“The governor has done a great job of laying out a positive agenda on the environment,” Simitian said. “Now it is time to roll up the shirt sleeves and make it real.”

Times staff writers Alicia Lozano in London and Janet Wilson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.



Deconstructing pollution

In a recent report, the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed the public health effects of heavy diesel construction equipment in California.

Estimated annual health effects (2005)

*--* South Coast Statewide Air Basin* Premature deaths 1,132 731 Respiratory hospitalizations 669 383 Cardiovascular hospitalizations 417 274 Asthma and other lower respiratory symptoms 30,118 20,941 Lost work days 182,940 123,439 School absences 331,040 175,339



* Includes most of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties


Source: Union of Concerned Scientists