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SoCal: Dirty Politics = Dirty Air and High Rise Beaches

DEEGAN ON LA-Very quickly, what has been historically clean is on the verge of becoming very dirty. California, especially our Los Angeles region, has just taken two big hits to its environment, both aimed directly at our quality of life. These twin impacts involve air pollution and density pollution and should be of concern to everyone. The air we breathe may now become compromised by less control over emissions. And there is danger to our coastline because developers that may have had their shackles loosened might be allowed to increase building on our beach fronts. 

 

Within days of each other, the long-standing executive directors of the California Costal Commission and the South Coast Air Quality Management District were summarily fired by politically appointed boards. Neither has stated publicly and clearly exactly why such abrupt and radical changes were necessary. Everyone who cares about the potential development of our nearly pristine California coastline and about the air quality we endure should take note. Developers could obtain the power to build along our coast and oil refineries may soon have less stringent controls on the toxic emissions that belch into our air. 

Beneficiaries of these actions include developers and builders and oil companies, two of the mainstays of the region’s economy. Finding the right balance is the challenge our political leaders face and some are speaking out voraciously, especially about the termination of the air quality board executive director, an issue that most aggressively impacts Los Angeles. The possibility of new McMansions on the beaches, for now, seems to be an issue with less volume. Choking on dirty air affects everyone and deserves the public outcry it is receiving. Hopefully, public opinion will intensify, adding pressure on our political leaders to take steps to reverse this decision. 

Both of these government agencies were formed in the 1970’s on the heels of the birth of Earth Day on April 22, 1970. This was a major stepping stone creating increased environmental awareness of the general public that recognized the need to protect the environment. 

The Coastal Commission was created in 1972 and made permanent by the California Coastal Act of 1976. It is responsible for the protection of coastal resources, including shoreline public access and recreation, marine habitat, landform alteration; it also controls construction along the state's 1,100 miles of shoreline, among many other responsibilities related to the California coast. 

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), formed in 1976, is the agency responsible for regulating stationary sources of air pollution such as the oil refineries in the South Coast Air Basin in Southern California. 

For decades, no matter what other abuses residents have had to endure living in our city, they have been assured that both the air they breathe, and the coastline and beaches they enjoy, were being protected. These protections included being saved from oil rigs spilling into the sea, as happened with the tragic Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969, a precursor to the energizing of the environmental movement, and having oil refineries in our South Bay region spewing less toxics into the air, and coastline development almost completely banned. 

An exception has been Malibu, home of “billionaires’ beach” which, possibly thanks to the wealthy and powerful residents that make up its core, has had more development than many other coastal communities. Seen from the sea or from the air, Malibu is a mass of highly dense cul de sacs rising from the Pacific Ocean to the ridge lines of the mountains. It may have been paradise decades ago, and it still carries the coveted Malibu “brand,” but Malibu cannot be anybody’s idea of how to create and manage the growth and density of a small California coastal community. Other communities that dot our beautiful local coastline -- gems like Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach – may now come under more relentless assault from developers due to the shift in management at the Coastal Commission. 

The seeds have already been planted for Venice Beach to become the next Malibu and other communities will follow. Soon, we may see more coastal development stretching across all of Santa Monica Bay -- from the Palos Verdes Peninsula on the south to the Point Dume Peninsula on the north. It would become our own version of the Jersey Shore, an area where many-miles of coastal land are developed with 40 communities built side by side – far more densely built than anything we have in California where we are accustomed to hundreds of miles of sandy, isolated beaches. 

The termination of Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester struck a blow at coastal protection. A delicate state of preservation/protection versus pro-development/expansion sits in the balance. 

Equally troubling, environmentally, is the firing of Executive Director Barry Wallerstein of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), the agency that stewards the air we breathe. 

Several political leaders at multiple levels of city, county and state government have objected to his termination. This includes State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, who announced that he will introduce legislation to increase the size of the SCAQMD board, adding three new members: one experienced in public health and two as environmental justice members. 

De Leon also alleged, to the Daily Breeze that, “This hostile takeover, led by (Los Angeles County) Supervisor Michael Antonovich, has subverted the will of the people and undone decades of hard work.” Antonovich, a Republican, is suspected of wanting the board to be friendlier to big business interests, especially the oil refineries that smudge the south coast and belch toxic fumes into the air. 

Antonovitch, who has been a county supervisor for the past 36 years, may be giving this air quality agency reorganization as a gift to his big business supporters and contributors – folks he may want to call on again when he makes a run for Democratic State Senator Carol Liu’s seat. She has been termed out, as has Antonovitch. He’s announced his intention to extend his career – to become another “revolving door” politico by moving from the county to the state government. 

That could help explain why a near-octogenarian, instead of retiring to make room for fresher voices with a true stake in the future, may be creating a “quid pro quo” by helping to engineer a pro-oil business change over at the air quality board. 

Other political leaders that objected to the firing of SCAQMD’s Barry Wallerstein include County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents portions of the Harbor Area where the majority of the oil refineries are located. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, The Coalition for Clean Air, and the Coalition for a Safe Environment have also weighed in with their objections, as has the California Air Resources Board. The Senate Environmental Quality Committee has asked the board to reconsider. 

Maybe the objective here was to create such foul air that we can’t smell the stink of dirty politics.

 

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for City Watch by Linda Abrams.