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A decision to go back to a hazy future

by John Pixley

 

It used to be “Beware the Ides of March.” Perhaps now it is the Spring Equinox, coming Sunday, that we should beware.

After all, “having jobs [is] just as important for a person’s health, for a family’s health, as having clean air.” That’s what Larry McCallon, the mayor of Highland in San Bernardino County and a newly-appointed board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, thinks. And it looks like he and the other new Republican members of the panel of 13 charged with adopting pollution control regulations to protect the health of the 17 million people here in southern California are doing what they can to put oil refineries and other heavy industries first.

The fact that winter is ending may not mean much for us in Claremont, all the more so when the monster El Niño has been pretty much a no-show here. With days and weeks of warm, clear weather since early February, the first day of spring, March 20, is merely a date on the calendar. Even so, I’ve always had a soft spot for winter in Claremont.

This is because, although it may be warm and dry, it has always been clear—refreshingly clear—here in winter. There have always been clear skies, with little or no smog, during the winter months. This was when we had those iconic, heavenly views of snow-capped mountains with trees loaded with giant, bright oranges in the foreground. The old joke was that this is when the Colleges hired their new professors starting in August.

But this has been changing. Not only are there no more orange trees, so to speak, and not only has there been not so much snow on Mt. Baldy and the other peaks in recent years, the winter months haven’t been the only clear, smog-free or less smoggy period in Claremont.

In the last five years or so, I have noticed that the warmer days of spring don’t always mean that we can’t see Mt. Baldy. Even in summer, it’s not so hot and smoggy. Or it may very well be hot, but it is definitely not so smoggy, and there are days we can see our local mountains. Perhaps this just makes it feel not so hot. Last summer, I wrote about being able to find a pleasant spot under a tree to read on an afternoon in July and August. I couldn’t do this when I was growing up here and even 10 or 20 years ago.

And this isn’t wishful thinking or seeing things through rose-colored sunglasses. According to the Los Angeles Times, since Barry Wallerstein became the executive officer of the AQMD in 1997, “pollution diminished sharply across the region.” This is significant, in that the agency’s jurisdiction, covering Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, has long been known to have the nation’s worst air.

With the coming of spring and summer this year, I wonder if this happy trend will continue and if we’ll be able to see Mt. Baldy during the warmer months in future years. There has been another change and, this time, it isn’t for the better.

Two weeks ago, in a closed-door session during its meeting in Diamond Bar, the AQMD board, with its new Republican members, voted to fire Mr. Wallerstein as its chief executive. The 7-6 vote was a repudiation of the longtime director’s tightening of air pollution rules, which lead to the clearer skies here in recent years.

The board also reaffirmed new smog rules backed by oil refineries and other major polluters. This vote revisited the one made in December, going against what Mr. Wallerstein and his staff recommended. The new rules will cut nitrogen oxide pollution by 12 tons a day instead of 14 tons a day, as was recommended, and will be less expensive for industry to implement.

These actions were taken despite desperate pleas during the public comment period. Syvia Betancourt of the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma told the panelists, “Your names will be etched on the lungs of our community members.” Former AQMD Chairman Henry W. Wedaa wrote to the board expressing “grave concerns” about the move to oust Mr. Wallerstein—a move taken without public explanation.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the firing and the new rules “are expected to delay Southern California’s progress toward [meeting federal standards] by allowing industry to avoid costly air quality improvements.” The California Air Resource Board has taken the unusual step of criticizing the board decision, saying it violates state and federal laws and will harm public health, and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee has asked the board to reconsider its decision.

In addition, California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon said he will introduce legislation to add three new members to the board. A coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have filed a lawsuit to prevent the implementation of the new rules.

Maybe this and all the outcry will better the situation—clear the air again, so to speak. It will be interesting to see. The AQMD board’s move wasn’t unlike the California’s Coastal Commission’s decision in January to oust its respected longtim executive director, Charles Lester.  The vote, also taken behind closed doors after hours of public testimony in favor of Mr.  Lester, is seen to favor developers who want to build projects along the state’s spectacular coastline.

This isn’t the first time the air quality board has been questioned recently. It has been in the spotlight over its handling of years of dangerous lead and arsenic emissions from the now-closed Exide battery plant into communities of southeast Los Angeles County, its response to the massive gas leak near Porter Ranch and restrictions targeting smoke from beach bonfire pits in Orange County.

The board members who voted to fire Mr. Wallerstein and not to reconsider the weakened smog rules insist that they are simply putting environmental needs and business needs more in balance. They would no doubt agree that their decisions merely reflect what David Englin, the executive vice president of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, says: “Children deserve to breathe clean air and they deserve the healthy homes that result when a parent has a good-paying job.”

Yes, I agree that having a good-paying job is “healthy,” but I wonder if Mr. Englin, Mayor McCallon of Highland and others on the AQMD board have considered that having a good-paying job does no good if one can’t do the job because of asthma or other breathing problems caused by chronic smog. Or because of having to constantly take care of a child with a breathing ailment due to air pollution.

This is the question. Even more than whether we can see the mountains for more than a few months during the year—although it would be nice if we can keep doing that. 

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