Will the ouster of California green leaders imperil clean air?

High-profile turnover at state agencies reflect a culture split between grassroots demands and developer interests.

 

For 62 years, Teresa Flores lived in a small house across from a railyard in San Bernardino, California. The smell of diesel fuel permeated the neighborhood, and dust coated cars and driveways. Her neighbors suffered from skin rashes, asthma, cancer and maladies no one could seem to identify.

Flores finally moved to the other side of town. Though she can breathe easier now, she knows there’s no real escape: San Bernardino and Riverside counties have some of the state’s worst air quality, blanketed as they are by the smog that blows eastward from Los Angeles and gets trapped by the San Bernardino Mountains.

The San Gabriel Mountains are almost completely obscured by air pollution in Los Angeles, California.
Ringo Chiu

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is responsible for regulating much of that pollution, from stationary sources like oil refineries and power plants. With the state Air Resources Board, it also helps inform policy decisions by assessing public health in communities around refineries, factories and railyards. In early March, the district’s board fired its director of 19 years, Barry Wallerstein, because he opposed loosening state pollution regulations in order to accommodate business interests, according to some board members. “It’s scary,” Flores says. “I don’t know if the person replacing him has the knowledge of what’s going on in these communities.”

Wallerstein was ousted less than two months after the California Coastal Commission fired its director of five years, Charles Lester. Several commissioners say this was due to his management skills, though others, including Lester, blame it on a power struggle with commissioners lobbied heavily by homebuilders and -business developers.

The firings raise questions about the future of California’s environmental regulations, generally considered the nation’s most progressive. Last year, a Republican majority was elected to the Air Quality Management District, and the vote to oust Wallerstein was strictly along party lines. The commission’s vote was less politicized, but Sean Hecht, a UCLA law professor, says, “Many commissioners and board members believe that there is an irreconcilable tension between environmental regulation and jobs.” 

Both agencies wield a lot of power: The Air Quality Management District’s 725-person staff advises a board of 13 politicians and business leaders representing Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The district helps ensure that Southern California abides by federal Environmental Protection Agency laws, such as the Clean Air Act. Wallerstein made great strides in reducing smog in his tenure: The number of days exceeding federal ozone standards dropped by a third, although some criticized him for not responding strongly enough to the notorious methane leak at Aliso Canyon.

The Coastal Commission’s staff of 163 and its 12 commissioners work to uphold the Coastal Act of 1972, which protects public beaches and habitats along 1,100 miles of coastline. While Lester approved most proposed developments, he also implemented sea-level rise adaptation planning for local governments and fought to ensure public beach access for low-income communities.

The firings raise questions about the future of California’s environmental regulations, generally considered the nation’s most progressive.

Industry stakeholders often meet with members of both agencies, a fact that has always caused tension. Most recently, in December, the district’s board ignored recommendations and EPA rules to adopt a weaker smog-reduction rule backed by the oil industry. According to Joe Lyou, a Los Angeles board member registered as an Independent, the Western States Petroleum Association “basically dictated” the decision from behind the scenes. Wallerstein was one of the most vocal objectors. Less than three months later, however, he was fired, and the board reaffirmed its smog decision.  

Now, the question is who will run the agencies and in what direction they will steer them. The Coastal Commission is still seeking a director, but in early April, the Air Quality Management District hired Wayne Nastri, a former EPA administrator under George W. Bush. Nastri was president of a consulting firm, E4 Environmental Solutions, which represented energy companies involved in district decisions. The appointment isn’t surprising, Hecht says: “The current board wouldn’t be selecting someone if they didn’t have a sense they would be more of a hands-off regulator than Wallerstein was.”

Meanwhile, environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice have sued the district over the smog rulings, and state lawmakers are pushing legislation that calls for greater agency transparency. Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone of California’s 29th District sponsored a bill requiring coastal commissioners to identify the names as well as the requests of the developers they meet with, and Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has proposed adding public health and environmental justice experts to the district.

Grassroots efforts to improve air quality and coastal access also continue. Flores works with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice to mobilize engagement in the low-income communities most affected by the district’s decisions. “The laws are not followed through,” Flores says. “They’re always talking about things improving, but when you live in the middle of everything, you see it firsthand. We’re watching (politicians) closely.”  

Lyndsey Gilpin is an HCN editorial intern.  

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