On Friday, Southern California’s air quality board voted during a closed-door meeting to forcefully roll back pollution regulations in favor of regulations backed by oil refineries and other polluters. At the same time, the board also voted to dismiss their executive officer Barry Wallerstein, who had presided over the board since 1997.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District board manages pollution in a four-county region of Southern California, including some of the most polluted areas in the country. Under Wallerstein’s tenure, the number of days that air quality exceeded federal standards dropped by a third, but environmental and public health groups are quick to note that Southern California’s pollution levels are still far from meeting federal health standards, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Republicans took control of the air quality board in February, and new members have not been shy about their intentions to bring a more industry-friendly approach to pollution control. All seven of the board’s Republicans voted to dismiss Wallerstein, narrowly beating out opposition from the board’s five Democrats and one independent.
“With every rule-making and regulation we need to be looking at the economic impact as well as the environmental impacts,” Dwight Robinson, a Republican councilman from Lake Forest and a new member to the board, said in an interview earlier this week.
The board also voted eight to five not to reconsider a controversial December vote, which approved the adoption of an industry-backed plan to regulate pollution from refineries, power plants, and other major facilities. The plan would delay installation of pollution controls at the region’s six major oil refineries, something that environmental and public health groups worry will slow progress toward meaningful pollution reductions in the area. The regulations are backed by Western States Petroleum Association and other industry groups.
Environmental groups derided Friday’s votes, worrying that Wallerstein’s dismissal will set the region back even further from reaching federal air quality standards.
“The district has never complied with the Clean Air Act,” Evan Gillespie, a campaign director for Sierra Club, said. “We are still out of compliance and the immediate concern is that the district has to put forward a plan to the EPA for how they’re going to get in compliance. Compliance is a simple word, but there are people who are going to have asthma attacks and die if we don’t do this.”
President pro Tempore of the California State Senate Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) promised legislative action following the board’s votes, calling the decisions “only the latest in a disturbing trend of dirty energy interests dismantling clean air rules that the public overwhelmingly supports.”
On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times editorial board urged the air quality board to reconsider its stance on pollution regulation, calling the argument that pollution regulation hampers economic growth “a false choice.”
“Cleaning Southern California’s air isn’t an either/or proposition,” the editorial board wrote. “It will require cutting all sources of pollution. The AQMD board needs to stay focused on that task.”