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Smog rules could get tougher as liberal Kuehl replaces conservative Antonovich on air board

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, seen at her oath of office ceremony in 2014, has been appointed to a seat on the region's air quality board.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed liberal Democrat Sheila Kuehl to replace conservative Republican Michael D. Antonovich on Southern California’s air quality board Tuesday, ending GOP control over the panel and potentially shifting it back toward stricter regulation of polluters.

Kuehl’s appointment comes 10 months after Republicans gained a seven-member majority on the 13-member South Coast Air Quality Management District board in a push to make it more industry-friendly. Under Republican control, the board fired longtime executive Barry Wallerstein, upheld oil industry-backed rules on smog-forming pollution and took other steps aimed at easing burdens on businesses.

In an interview Tuesday, Kuehl described her approach as “strongly regulatory” and said “we need to pay attention to any form of pollution that can be regulated.”

I’ll be interested in increasing clean energy in any way possible.

Sheila Kuehl, newly appointed air quality board member

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Kuehl, a former state legislator, is seen as a tough and savvy environmentalist and has previously expressed concerns about the South Coast air board’s direction. Her appointment comes as the AQMD is making crucial decisions about how to clean the nation’s smoggiest air to federal standards over the next 15 years.

A big pollution-reduction plan being finalized by the agency focuses heavily on voluntary measures favored by industry that encourage polluters to clean up rather than imposing traditional emissions-cutting rules.

The approach relies on finding new funding sources to increase spending on clean-air incentive programs more than 10-fold to $1 billion a year. Environmental and industry groups are wrangling over the details of the plan, scheduled to go to a final vote in February.

Kuehl said Tuesday that the agency cannot rely solely on incentives, calling stronger regulations “an important tool that has been underutilized by the AQMD.”

“I’ll be interested in increasing clean energy in any way possible,” she added, noting that she hoped to pursue more vehicle electrification, and perhaps, update rules mandating cleaner government fleets.

Kuehl also vowed to reexamine the agency’s troubled cap-and-trade program for smog-forming emissions, saying she wanted to “look at stronger use of safeguards and regulations.”

The Regional Clean Air Incentives Market, or RECLAIM program, has been under fire from state regulators, politicians and environmentalists recently for failing to achieve promised emissions reductions from oil refineries and other major polluters. In a report two months ago, the agency itself proposed giving “serious consideration” to ending the program and adopting traditional regulations in its place.

Tracy Hernandez, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, noted Kuehl’s “passion and track record for supporting policies that advance cleaner air” and said she looks forward to working with her “to achieve balanced policies and rule-making decisions at the air district that result in growing jobs and keeping our air clean.”

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Environmentalists welcomed the appointment of Kuehl but said they remain concerned about a business-friendly tilt among both Democrats and Republican members on the panel.

“One shift on the board doesn’t solve the problem,” said Adrian Martinez, staff attorney for the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice. “We need strong, clean air voices who are willing to roll up their sleeves and figure out how we solve this air pollution crisis.”

The changes at the agency follow the worst summer smog season in years, as ozone pollution in Southern California jumped to levels not seen since 2009 and brought an increase of patients seeking medical treatment for respiratory illness. There were 132 bad air days across the ocean-to-mountains basin under AQMD’s jurisdiction, up from 112 the previous year.

Activists and state legislators have also raised concerns about diversity on the panel, which has no Latino members and few representatives from polluted, inland communities.

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California Senate Leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) sought to shake up the air quality board this year by proposing to add three state-appointed “environmental justice” members to represent low-income communities. But his legislation failed in the state Assembly.

In a statement Tuesday, De León’s spokesman said the Senate leader called Kuehl’s appointment “an important and welcome change … but it’s unfortunate they didn’t select an appointee to reflect the diversity of the region.”

Spokesman Anthony Reyes said De León is concerned that “many of the pro-polluter regulations since the partisan takeover still remain in place” and that the lack of Latino representatives on the panel means “the communities who suffer the most do not have a voice.”

The air quality board consists of elected officials and other appointees from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and is responsible for protecting the health of 17 million people across the region.

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On Friday, the AQMD board voted to formally appoint executive officer Wayne Nastri, a former industry consultant and regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who was hired to lead the agency eight months ago on an interim basis.

Antonovich, who termed out, served as the L.A. County government’s representative on the AQMD board for more than 28 years and was succeeded on the Board of Supervisors on Monday by Kathryn Barger.

Kuehl is expected to take the county’s seat on the air quality board in January.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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Twitter: @tonybarboza


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