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Pro-Business Forces Have Seized Control of California's Air and Beaches

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There have been damaging coups at two vital state agencies

Two's a trend if it's something as disturbing this: in the past month, two California agencies whose job it is to protect our most elemental environmental resources have fired their top executives for being too good at their jobs. In both cases, pro-business interests seized voting majorities and—ignoring hours and hours of public testimony—got rid of leaders they felt were more interested in the environment than in helping out corporations.

The California Coastal Commission is the state agency in charge of protecting our coastline (which, by law, belongs entirely to the public). In early February, the CCC met in Morro Bay, where it heard hours of testimony late into the night praising its Executive Director Charles Lester and his record, "including the development of a strategic plan for the agency, efforts to address sea level rise, increasing the budget by $3 million and good cooperation with local governments," as the LA Times summarized it. Then it went into a private session and made the decision to fire him with no further explanation.

I believe that having jobs are just as important for a person's health, for a family's health, as having clean air. - South Coast Air Quality Management District board member

Commission members insisted the firing had nothing to do with making the coast more accessible to developers, but also refused to present their case to the public (which their lawyer told them they were free to do) or even to discuss their decision afterward. The Commission's chairman pretty much tipped their hand in his characterization, though, saying the firing had nothing at all to do with "greater flexibility for development." Not: "allowing more development on coastal land" or " "selling out the coasts," but "flexibility for development."

California Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins definitely didn't buy it, tweeting "Let me apologize to the public. I truly thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast."

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is the state agency in charge of regulating pollution in Orange, LA, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties—the smoggiest area in the United States. Last Friday, the SCAQMD board met in Diamond Bar, where it heard hours of testimony praising Executive Officer Larry Wallerstein and his record—"During his tenure, pollution diminished sharply across the region," says the LA Times. Then it went into a private session and made the decision to fire him with no further explanation.

Unlike the CCC, though, AQMD board members haven't been coy about the direction they want the agency to go. "With every rule-making and regulation we need to be looking at the economic impact as well as the environmental impacts," new board member Dwight Robinson told the Times last week. Robinson joined the board recently after Orange County officials "kicked a clean-energy advocate — Democratic Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido — off the air quality board in November," the LAT's Steve Lopez explained; that gave Republicans a majority on the board (seven of them to five Democrats and one independent; there are "no Latinos and few women"), which voted along party lines to fire Wallerstein.

"Governments at all levels need to reduce regulations so businesses can thrive," the OC Republican Party chairman wrote in "a letter of support" when Robinson was appointed, without noting that the businesses being enabled to thrive in this case are large-scale polluters like oil companies.

Not coincidentally, the board voted at the same meeting not to reconsider a December vote in favor of "an industry-backed" overhaul of a cap-and-trade plan that "will delay the installation of costly pollution controls at the region's six major oil refineries and set back progress toward clean air." Wallerstein and his staff had proposed a tougher version of the rules.

The California Air Resources Board wrote a letter to the board telling them the plan "did not meet the requirements of state or federal law," according to KPCC, and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee asked them to reconsider after the December vote, which they've now declined to do.

Governments at all levels need to reduce regulations so businesses can thrive. - OC Republican Party chairman

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice filed a lawsuit Wednesday over the toothless plan, alleging it will reduce emissions by so little that it "violates requirements under a state law that cap-and-trade programs achieve the same emission reductions as traditional regulations," reports the LA Times. This version of the plan basically just lets big polluters pay to keep polluting.

In response, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León has asked LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich to resign from the AQMD and is also planning to introduce legislation that would add three new members to the board, "one public health expert and two environmental justice members — to represent communities suffering from pollution," says the LA Times. (Most members are elected officials from around the region—city councilmembers, mayors, and county supes.)

There are 17 million people in the extraordinarily polluted area covered by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and while pollution decreased dramatically under Wallerstein, it "remains far from meeting federal health standards." Pollution causes asthma, heart disease, and premature death, among other problems. "Our health is impacted every day by the decisions this board makes," a lawyer for Earthjustice tells the Times.

And the board members say chilling things like this: "I believe that having jobs are just as important for a person's health, for a family's health, as having clean air." Loosening regulations on oil refineries doesn't create jobs. Letting rich people build mansions on our coasts might lead to a few temporary construction positions. But there's no big secret about who these regulatory coups were made to benefit, and it's not the citizens of California.