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California

Legislature declines to add ‘environmental justice’ members to Southern California air quality board

South Coast air district board members
South Coast Air Quality Management District board members John Benoit and Joseph Lyou attend a public meeting on April 1.
(Los Angeles Times)

The state Legislature has rejected a controversial measure that would have shifted the political balance of Southern California’s air-quality board by adding three state-appointed “environmental justice” members to represent low-income communities suffering from pollution. 

The legislation to expand the South Coast Air Quality Management District board from 13 to 16 members fell 11 votes short of passage in the Assembly late Wednesday, with Republicans and members of a business-aligned bloc of Democrats in opposition.

The measure by State Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) had sought to shake up the smog-fighting agency after Republicans gained a majority of seats earlier this year, vowing to ease the burden of its regulations on polluting industries.

If the bill had passed, the governor and state legislative leaders would have gained three new appointments and influence over an agency charged with reducing air pollution across a vast basin of 17 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

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The oil industry and some business groups fought the legislation as a threat to local control of the region’s clean air agency. In June, the AQMD board itself voted to oppose the legislation.

The measure’s defeat came as the Legislature sent the governor a number of other bills championed by environmental justice advocates and aimed at directing the benefits of California’s climate change and pollution-reduction programs to poor and predominantly Latino communities with the worst air quality. 

Similar legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year expanded the state Air Resources Board by adding two members to represent areas where poor people are affected by pollution. 

Opponents of the AQMD measure criticized it on the Assembly floor as a power grab by state politicians upset that Republicans had taken majority control of the board.

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“This sort of political manipulation simply undermines the faith of Californians,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach). “It sets a dangerous precedent that election results deemed unacceptable in Sacramento will be overturned by arbitrarily changing the rules and restacking the deck.”

Supporters said the board needs greater representation from low-income people of color. 

De León said Thursday he was disappointed but expects a “more progressive” member to replace Republican L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich on the AQMD board when he is termed out later this year.

“Any time people of color are excluded from decision-making processes directly tied to their health and well-being, fundamental change is needed,” De León said in an emailed statement. “In the long run, this board demands an overhaul.”

The AQMD is the nation’s most powerful local air pollution agency, regulating tens of thousands of businesses in the region with the worst smog. It is run by a board made up of 10 city council members, mayors and county supervisors who are chosen locally and three members appointed by state legislative leaders and the governor.

The panel has come under attack in recent months from Democratic state legislators and environmentalists, who say its new leadership is placing the concerns of regulated businesses above the health of residents and suffers from a lack of diversity. All 10 of the locally chosen elected officials on the board are white.

In a GOP-led effort last fall, Orange County elected officials unseated AQMD board member Miguel Pulido, Santa Ana’s Democratic mayor, and replaced him with Dwight Robinson, a Republican city councilman from Lake Forest. That left no Latinos on the board and gave Republicans a 7-6 majority on the panel starting in February.

Once seated, the new majority fired the agency’s longtime executive officer and replaced him with a former industry consultant. It also voted to uphold controversial amendments to a pollution-trading program for refineries and other major polluters that were backed by the oil industry.

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While the board’s Republican members deny trying to roll back smog-fighting regulations, they have been outspoken about reducing the burden of regulations on businesses and have moved to shift the priorities of an agency that for decades has pioneered some of the nation’s toughest pollution-cutting rules.

The district’s recently released air quality plan gives priority to “nonregulatory” measures and relies on finding billions in incentive money to encourage businesses to adopt cleaner technologies.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

Twitter: @tonybarboza


UPDATES:

1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from state Senate leader Kevin de León.

This article was originally published at 12:20 p.m.


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