Environment & Science

AQMD board's new Republican majority could vote out longtime exec

FILE: South Coast AQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein speaks to residents during a town hall meeting.
FILE: South Coast AQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein speaks to residents during a town hall meeting.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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A proposal to review the South Coast Air Quality Management District's top executive Friday has local environmentalists concerned that a new, more conservative board majority might choose someone more willing to roll back pollution controls.

Environmentalists consider AQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein a champion of clean air rules in the Los Angeles Basin, the nation’s most polluted region. Business groups see him as a drag on growth.

The board action, to be considered in closed session, is to review Wallerstein's performance and potentially appoint an interim executive to replace him.

The regulatory board's majority has shifted from Democrat to Republican because of recent appointments, following a strategy voiced by Republican Party Chair Jim Brulte to make the board more business-friendly.

In December, Brulte told Capitol Weekly that his plan to install a Republican majority on the AQMD board had succeeded.

The South Coast AQMD is made up of 13 officials appointed by elected officials from L.A., Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The district is responsible for controlling pollution across Southern California.

The two new Republicans to join the board are Highland Mayor Larry McCallon and Lake Forest Councilman Dwight Robinson. A selection committee representing Orange County cities booted Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido in favor of Robinson in November, increasing the Republican roster to seven.

The board's first indication of a changed approach came in December when it rejected Wallerstein's staff proposal to require refiners to install new pollution control machinery in favor of a plan backed by the Western States Petroleum Association to let refiners buy pollution credits, said Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.

"This is much bigger than being about one person," Magavern said. "This is about the industry, particularly the oil industry not wanting somebody to regulate them."

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement Thursday in support of Wallerstein.

"We must stay on an ambitious path forward that prioritizes the health of our communities, creates green jobs and businesses, and advances zero emission vehicles," Garcetti's statement said. "We can do this by the SCAQMD passing a strong air quality management plan this year, but we need a committed leader, like Barry, at the helm."

That December 7-5 vote resulted in one of the largest-ever cuts in oxides from nitrogen-oxide emissions, requiring 56 local sources like refineries and power plants to cut 12 tons per day from their emissions. The staff proposal called for cutting 14 tons. The difference would save the polluters some $800 million, a spokeswoman for the Western States Petroleum Association said. It is on Friday's board agenda for reconsideration — however, the board is not required to vote on the item.

"This reflects a shift in the philosophy of the governing board to be less about enforcing federal law, less about protecting clean air, and more about making sure that the businesses get the policies that they want instead," Morgan Wyenn of the Natural Resources Defense Council told KPCC's Larry Mantle on Thursday.

Bryan Starr, senior vice president of the Orange County Business Council, said the group is looking for a better balance between clean air regulation and the ability for businesses to function efficiently.

For example, he said, when shipping companies invest in new equipment to meet air quality standards set for port haulers, they are unable to get the full use out of their investment when the next upgrade request from AQMD comes within just a few years.

The board's other Republicans are:

The Board's Democrats are:

Dr. Joseph K. Lyou, head of the Coalition for Clean Air, was appointed to the board by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lyou does not claim a party affiliation, said Coalition spokesman Magavern.

This story has been updated.