Environment & Science

LA Supervisor Sheila Kuehl appears headed to air quality board

File: Heat waves emanate from the exhaust pipe of a city transit bus as it passes an American flag hung on the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice by workers renovating the historic structure on April 25, 2013.
File: Heat waves emanate from the exhaust pipe of a city transit bus as it passes an American flag hung on the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice by workers renovating the historic structure on April 25, 2013.
David McNew/Getty Images

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The board overseeing air quality in the Los Angeles Basin is poised for a shake-up that could change how regulators police polluters across the region. 

Tuesday's agenda for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors indicate that liberal Supervisor Sheila Kuehl is set to replace outgoing conservative Supervisor Michael Antonovich on the 13-member board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. 

Right now, Antonovich is part of a seven-member majority on the board that favors business-friendly alternatives to the traditional regulatory approach of mandated pollution cuts and fines. Kuehl's appointment will likely swing the majority back to a more regulations-focused board.

In another change, the interim head of the AQMD won the permanent executive officer job.

Wayne Nastri, a former EPA administrator-turned-industry consultant, had been appointed to a six-month contract in April a few months after Republicans achieved their seven-seat majority on the AQMD board.  The other members of the AQMD board are five Democrats and one who is registered as a nonpartisan voter but who tends to vote with the Democrats.

The vote to appoint Nastri was unanimous, 11-0 with two members absent. The board set Nastri's salary at $252,168.
    
The appointment of a permanent executive officer comes at a critical time for the AQMD as the staff transitions from the dismissal last March of longtime former executive Barry Wallerstein on a party-line vote. Wallerstein was seen as too tough on industry.
    
 Members of the board had also criticized Wallerstein over the agency's response to last year's massive natural gas leak at a storage field near Porter Ranch, according to a report in The Desert Sun. 
    
Nastri's appointment drew criticism from environmentalists who often appear before the board calling for stricter air quality enforcement and regulations.

"The big litmus test is going to be next year when Nastri will need to show that he can be tough on large polluting industries like oil refineries and the ports," said Adrian Martinez, staff attorney for EarthJustice.

In June, Nastri's staff presented an air quality management plan that veered away from strict regulations in favor of a more business-friendly strategy for reducing emissions that focused on voluntary actions and as much as $1 billion in financial incentives to cut pollution.

The plan aims to reduce the region's ozone pollution from some of the nation's worst to a standard that might finally comply with federal clean air laws.

In recent months, the air quality plan has been revised to once again rely on "enforceable regulatory measures."  The board has formed a committee to come up with sources of funds for any incentives.

Complicating the AQMD's task in coming years will be the challenge of responding to the potential relaxation of federal environmental regulations. President-elect Donald Trump has said he would like to rid industry of regulations and eliminate or at least reduce the influence of the Environmental Protection Administration.