State air board official resigns

Times Staff Writer

Saying that the Schwarzenegger administration “has lost its way on air quality,” a top California air official resigned Monday.

Catherine Witherspoon, executive director of the California Air Resources Board, resigned less than a week after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fired the board’s chairman, Robert Sawyer, who said he was dismissed for aggressively pursuing greenhouse gas emission reductions.

In interviews with The Times, Witherspoon said there had been a pattern of interference by the governor’s top staff in favor of industry lobbyists seeking to weaken or stall air pollution regulations, including the state’s landmark global warming law and proposed regulations on diesel construction equipment and wood products containing formaldehyde.


“They were ordering us to find ways to reduce costs and satisfy lobbyists,” she said, adding that the governor’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, and Cabinet Secretary Dan Dunmoyer took the lead on pressuring the agency staff and board chairman.

Adding insult to injury, she said, members of the governor’s staff have publicly blamed her and Sawyer for not doing more -- conduct she described as “Orwellian ... a triumph of appearances over reality.”

The departures, along with the planned resignation of the top Cal/EPA deputy, Dan Scopek, regarded by many as a key appointee on climate change policies, could hamper California’s efforts to implement its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and other tough air pollution controls, legislative leaders and some observers said.

But Schwarzenegger’s spokesman and Scopek himself said the opposite was true.

“What’s important for the administration is to make sure the right leadership is put in place at [the air resources board] and that this state is able to aggressively meet its AB 32 commitment and clean its air,” said Adam Mendelsohn, the governor’s deputy chief of communications, who dismissed Witherspoon’s charges as the comments of a disgruntled employee.

Witherspoon also accused Democratic legislative leaders of being so focused on criticizing the governor that, like Schwarzenegger, they were not making decisions about which industries need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and by how much.

The Democrats have consistently fought for mandatory regulations, while Schwarzenegger has advocated a cap and trade approach, in which limits are set on emissions but businesses can exceed the limits by purchasing credits from others that have stayed under the cap. She said both approaches were needed.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), the author of AB 32, called the loss of the air board’s top two leaders “a fiasco” and ordered legislative hearings to be held Friday to investigate the reasons for their departures.

“I don’t want this issue to impact our fight on global warming,” he said. “The spotlight is on California, and I don’t want people in other states to say, ‘Oh, look at California. AB 32 is falling apart, so we’re not going to do anything either.’ ”

Nunez said he agreed with Witherspoon that legislators need to “push harder” to make the law work.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), said, “I think it’s less about Democrats than it is about the governor’s own centerpiece of his administration, which is global warming....

“These are cutting-edge things he’s trying to do, and arguably the two most important people responsible for implementing and enforcing that law are gone.”

Witherspoon had worked at the air board for 27 years, starting as a clerk. She was an often controversial figure, particularly after she signed secret agreements with the nation’s largest railroads to voluntarily reduce diesel pollution rather than mandating reductions.

“I’m happy to be going out with a roar and not a whimper,” Witherspoon said. “My objective is to make sure people understand what is going on so it can be straightened out.”