HERE’S WHAT I KNOW-California has long been a trailblazer in environmental policy but lately, times seem to be a-changin’ -- from the ousting of the Coastal Commission’s Charles Lester to efforts by the South Coast Air Quality Management District board to snuggle up to industry with cozier pollution policies.
The South Coast air board’s newly Republican majority just voted to fire longtime executive officer Barry Wallerstein and to reaffirm the recent adoption of emissions rules for refineries and other pollution sources that are backed by the oil industry.
State Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) is pushing back to prevent a rollback on environmental gains with plans to introduce legislation that will add a public health expert and two environmental justice members to the South Coast Air Quality Management District board. The environmental justice appointees would be selected by state legislative leaders, while the public health member would be a governor appointee. All three would represent communities impacted by pollution and the 13-member panel would increase to 16 members.
Ten of the current board members are city council members, mayors, and county supervisors selected by local elected officials in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. Three members are appointees of the state Assembly speaker, Senate leadership, and the governor. De León’s proposal would also shift from the agency members from four-year terms to at-will service at the discretion of the officials who appoint them.
The addition of an environmentally supportive voice would hopefully hand back the reins of the agency to the state legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown, leading to more aggressive policies to curb pollution in the country’s smoggiest region.
De León notes, “This has been a wholesale takeover, to the detriment of children and families who breathe these harmful contaminants into their lungs every single day. We have progressed on our policies; we cannot go backward.”
The shift in agency policy stems at least in part due to the board’s recent appointees, Highland Mayor Larry McCallon and Lake Forest Council Member Dwight Robinson who have been upfront about placing more emphasis on the economic burden posed by tough emission standards.
Prior to his ousting, Wallerstein and his staff had proposed a reduction in the cap on nitrous oxide pollution by 14 tons per day over the next seven years. The board countered with a proposed 12 tons per day cut with delays for the steepest cuts until the end of the seven-year period. The end result may delay installation of emissions controls at major oil refineries, putting a damper on ozone reduction, a component of smog that is linked to asthma, heart disease, lung damage, and premature deaths. Southern California’s inland valleys and mountains have especially high concentrations of ozone. The air quality panel has taken heat from state regulators and the Democratic legislative leadership for its refusal to adopt more ambitious measures.
How might de León’s proposal impact air quality in Southern California? A shift in the balance on the board is posed to foster debate about a plan due later this year that will determine how to decrease emissions to meet federal health standards for ozone and fine particle pollution.
The tug-of-war is between industry supporters who resist pollution reduction measures and those focused on reducing toxic emissions and cancer risk from refineries, metal factories, and manufacturers continues. Holding the country’s largest port complex accountable for pollution-reduction targets also stands in the balance.
Amplifying the voice of support for environmentally and health-friendly air quality policies is crucial to all who live in the southland, especially to residents of impacted communities. Setting back environmental progress by giving refineries and other industries a pass on emissions restrictions or pollution control standards just isn’t a sound policy for Californians.
(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and writes for CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.