The leader of the powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District was fired by a divided governing board on Friday in a move decried by California environmentalists.
Barry Wallerstein, who had been the district’s executive officer since 1997, was shown the door in a 7-6 vote without AQMD board members giving a reason and without a word from Wallerstein.
Wallerstein’s ouster was the second of the head of a California environmental agency in two months. The Coastal Commission’s executive director was voted out in February (Greenwire, Feb. 11).
The AQMD is responsible for overseeing air quality in Orange County and the urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties — an area of more than 10,000 square miles that is home to more than 16 million people. The region is famous for its heavy smog and fine airborne dust and for pioneering efforts to clear the air through regulations on emissions from everything from animal rendering plants to crematories.
The agency has 13 board members — one each is appointed by the governor, the state Assembly and the Senate, while others are local elected officials. Republicans gained a majority on the panel late last year with the appointment of Dwight Robinson, a councilman from the Orange County city of Lake Forest (see related story).
Robinson was quick to voice support for industry. "I feel like the board has focused a little bit more on the environmental stewardship side, a little bit less on the economic impact that some of the regulations have on a lot of jobs in the southern California region," Robinson told the newspaper Capitol Weekly in December. "I’m definitely concerned about companies leaving California and taking middle class jobs with them."
The agency named Chief Financial Officer Michael O’Kelly as acting executive officer while it searches for a permanent replacement.
A Democratic member of the board criticized the decision to fire Wallerstein.
"I am disappointed in how the dismissal of Dr. Wallerstein came about with such lack of transparency and public input," said board member Joe Buscaino, a Los Angeles City council member. "As the board now begins the process of seeking a new executive officer, it’s imperative that we come together and stress the importance of inclusivity and cooperation in working with all of our stakeholders and serve the mission of this agency, which is to strike the right balance between protecting the public health and preserving jobs."
The 7-6 vote fell along party lines: Voting "yes" were Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, Wildomar City Councilmember Ben Benoit, Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, Highland Mayor Larry McCallon, Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, Robinson and San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford.
Those who voted against the ouster were businessman and board Chairman William Burke, Buscaino, South Pasadena Mayor Michael Cacciott, Coalition for Clean Air President Joseph Lyou, Rolling Hills Estates Councilmember Judith Mitchell and businessman Clark Parker.
While board members didn’t lay out a case against Wallerstein, environmentalists and other observers tied his ouster to the more business-friendly Republican majority (see related story).
"This action seems clearly to stem from the will of that new majority," Sean Hecht, an environmental law professor at UCLA and co-director of the university’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, wrote in a blog post. "There is no serious question that the action will surely make the AQMD more friendly to regulated industries."
A harbinger of the board’s changed attitude came in December, when it voted 7-5 to oppose a staff recommendation to tighten supplies in a trading market for air pollution credits, known as RECLAIM, by 14 tons per day by 2022. The board voted to instead tighten them by 12 tons per day, over the objections of environmental groups.
On Friday, the board weighed a rare request from the state Senate Environmental Quality Committee to reconsider its RECLAIM decision. The motion to reopen the decision failed, 8-5.
The AQMD faces increasingly strict standards from U.S. EPA and the state Air Resources Board for ozone and particulate matter. By July, it has to finalize an update to its plan to achieve federal standards for one-hour and eight-hour ozone concentrations, as well as concentrations of two sizes of particulate matter (dust and soot).
The district has been out of compliance with EPA’s one-hour ozone rule since 1979 and currently envisions meeting it by 2023. It plans to meet an outdated eight-hour standard of 80 parts per billion by 2024 and the newer 70-ppb standard, which EPA set last year, by 2037.
An environmental activist said the agency could be in poor shape to submit a plan without Wallerstein.
"The removal of Dr. Wallerstein is pretty problematic on that front," said Evan Gillespie, Western deputy director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. "We have been out of compliance since the ink was drying on the Clean Air Act, so the idea somehow there hasn’t been sufficient balance between public health and business … is just a totally outdated frame."
Hecht said that although the Coastal Commission and AQMD votes were similar in some ways, last week’s move was more purely ideological.
While environmental groups argued that the 7-5 vote to dismiss Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester was intended to benefit developers, board members maintained that it was due to issues with Lester’s performance.
The AQMD vote "cannot be explained other than as a coup by regulated industries," Hecht said. "[T]he current AQMD board seems poised, with Dr. Wallerstein’s removal, to continue down the path of regulating less and of failing to meet standards required by both state and federal law."
Wallerstein, 63, a former co-president of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, has particular expertise in mobile sources of pollution. He serves on the Clean Air Act advisory subcommittee for mobile sources, and as an ex officio member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board executive committee. He had worked at AQMD since 1984 and has a doctorate in environmental science and engineering from UCLA. Earlier in his career, he worked at the California Air Resources Board and at aircraft manufacturer Northrop Corp.
Wallerstein made $389,609 in 2014, including benefits of $120,400, according to the salary-tracking website Transparent California. The board voted Friday to award Wallerstein a severance package equal to either 12 months’ full pay and benefits or 18 months’ pay.