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SoCal's Smog Regulating Body Wants to Gut Its Own Mission

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The South Coast Air Quality Management District is hoping to oust its chief and loosen regulations

Just last month, the California Coastal Commission booted its director in a move that his supporters say was made in order to install a more development-friendly director, and now there's another potential ouster on the way with major repercussions for California's environment and public good at stake. The board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District is going to evaluate the performance of its sitting executive officer, Barry Wallerstein, at a closed-door session this week, "and consider his resignation, dismissal or other personnel actions," including selecting an acting director to replace him, reports the LA Times.

The SCAQMD is in charge of regulations that control pollution in the region. They're the ones who issue orders for no-burn days in the district—which includes all of Orange County and the "urban" parts of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties—when pollution concerns are high; they also keep track of data on how much health-harming junk is in our air and have done so since 1987.

Wallerstein's possible removal comes a month after Republicans on the committee gained the majority on the panel, "with new appointees who have vowed to make pollution regulations less burdensome for businesses," or, in other words, to loosen restrictions on polluters. (Ten members of the 13-member board are elected officials—four county Supes and six councilmembers chosen by committee to rep their area; the remaining three are appointed by state officials.)

The Republicans gained a majority in November when Orange County officials replaced Santa Ana's mayor (a "clean-energy advocate") on the board, putting in his place an OC councilman "who has been outspoken about the effects of air pollution regulations on businesses." With the replacement instated, Republicans now have seven members on the board.

Another recent Republican addition to the board includes the mayor of the San Bernardino County city of Highland, who said this week that the air quality district needed to do more about the financial burden that environmental regulations put on businesses and added, "I believe that having jobs are just as important for a person's health, for a family's health, as having clean air."

That's an interesting position for a guy whose city is not far from Moreno Valley and Mira Loma, some shining examples of how inviting in polluting businesses destroys quality of life, seriously harms public health, and brings droves of money mostly to developers and the flagrantly crooked politicians who abet them.

The Republican majority on the board might not even be much of a change, though. The board had already made some decisions that are pretty business-friendly and public-health unfriendly before the tides turned, voting in December to put in place a plan proposed by a petroleum agency that is likely to "delay the installation of costly emissions controls at oil refineries and other major pollution sources and slow progress toward clean air."

Wallerstein at the time told the board that their decision wasn't in line with the agency's findings on the case and also warned that the move was "not legally defensible," the Times says, but he's also been known to be pretty "business friendly" himself. A 2014 BuzzFeed story about the disastrous situations in Moreno Valley and Mira Loma, included the detail that

Warehouse industry officials, along with Barry Wallerstein, the head of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, insist that it is possible to build jumbo warehouses that do not pose a threat to public health. The key, Wallerstein said, is taking steps such as requiring that “clean” trucks service them and ensuring that traffic going in and out does not abut residential areas.

But still environmentalists worry that the removal of Wallerstein would drive the board further away from protecting the public health. The timing is also questionable: the air quality district is working on a big new plan that will act as a blueprint for reducing emissions and meeting federal air quality standards across the district.