Head of powerful air agency on chopping block

By Debra Kahn | 03/02/2016 01:06 PM EST

The long-serving executive director of the Southern California air pollution agency may lose his job Friday in a public vote.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which enforces state and federal air pollution standards in the Los Angeles basin, is considering at its next public meeting whether to retain Barry Wallerstein, a 32-year employee of the agency who has been executive director since 1997.

The agency is responsible for controlling air pollution in all of 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 known both for its heavy smog — it regularly violates federal standards for ozone and particulate matter — and for its pioneering attempts to clean it up via regulations on everything from animal rendering plants to crematories.

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The agency, which has 13 board members — some of whom are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, while others are local elected officials — released its monthly meeting agenda yesterday. Alongside proposals to hand out incentives for electric lawn mowers and acquire infrared cameras to monitor oil refinery emissions, there is an item to consider "evaluation/discipline/dismissal/release/resignation" of the executive officer, as well as one to consider naming an acting executive officer.

"Evidently enough of the board members are willing to consider firing him that they’ve put it on the agenda," said board member Joseph Lyou, an appointee of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) who is president and CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air.

He said he hadn’t decided how he would vote. "As a board member, I’m obligated to keep an open mind; however, I think that Barry has earned his right to retire under his own terms," he said.

Wallerstein, 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.

It was not clear whether a majority of board members had agreed to place Wallerstein on the agenda. The agenda item is listed next to board Chairman William Burke’s name, who did not respond to a request for comment. Burke is a businessman with a variety of interests who is known as the founder of the City of Los Angeles Marathon.

The move is drawing comparisons to a similar episode last month at the state Coastal Commission. Executive Director Charles Lester was fired in a 7-5 vote that pitted board members against an outpouring of public support for Lester (Greenwire, Feb. 11).

"It certainly seems like Coastal Commission 2.0," Lyou said.

Another board member objected to the surprise nature of the proposal.

"I am deeply concerned about the sudden nature, lack of transparency and lack of public input in attempts to remove Dr. Wallerstein as the executive officer of the SCAQMD," said board member Joe Buscaino, who also serves on the Los Angeles City Council. "These similar methods proved to be controversial with the removal of California Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester. I do not support these type of methods and urge a more transparent and inclusive process."

One member of the board pointed to the agency’s handling of the four-month natural gas leak in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley as a possible reason for the push to oust Wallerstein.

"I would have thought that our agency would have been front-row center, and not behind the county of L.A. or the city of L.A., and yet I think they [Los Angeles] dominated the issue to get the gas company to do what they needed to do," said Shawn Nelson, a Republican appointee who chairs the Orange County Board of Supervisors. "There’s a time and place where the air quality management district should be way ahead of them; it should have been this one."

Nelson acknowledged that the board had recently shifted to a Republican majority but said that it was the agency’s lack of environmental leadership that may have prompted the discussion to dismiss Wallerstein.

"I would look to Porter Ranch," he said. "That’s not a Republican-Democrat thing, that just directly relates to our agency’s duty to protect people and our ability to respond to a major crisis."

But a local environmental activist praised Wallerstein’s work.

"He seems to be one of the straight shooters that isn’t political about his job and seems to be science-based," said Joe Galliani, founder of the local South Bay chapter of the climate change advocacy group 350.org. "I doubt they’re looking to get even tougher, that he wasn’t tough enough for them."

The board recently bucked a staff recommendation to tighten supplies in a trading market for air pollution credits by 14 tons per day, voting in December to instead tighten them by 12 tons per day by 2022.

"The vote went 7-5," Galliani said. "That might be a point of contention here, because clearly he would have been on the side of the staff."

Also on Friday’s agenda is a proposal to petition U.S. EPA to tighten the national nitrogen oxides standard for heavy-duty engines by a factor of 10, in order to reduce emissions from vehicles that are registered outside the state. The proposal is aimed at meeting federal ozone standards for 2023 and 2031.

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