Big Changes at South Coast AQMD

A minor revolution at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) board level is starting to generate major opposition from the local environmentalists, federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the halls of the State Legislature.

Barry Wallerstein

What could have ginned up this level of left-wing enviro opposition? The South Coast board committed the unforgiveable sin – they passed, on a bipartisan basis, a regulation suggested by the evil oil industry and supported by a variety of business interests and they fired Barry Wallerstein, the man who ran South Coast AQMD with an iron fist for the last two decades.

First the Rule
The rule, adopted last December, was an example of the type of balanced rulemaking that the business community has been seeking from SCAQMD for years. The measure set new emission reduction measures to achieve air quality goals, but did so in a way supported by business and the industries most affected by the new rule who were facing extreme costs for compliance – in the range of $3 billion per year just for 331 southern California companies.

While the rule was greeted with approval from industry in Southern California, CARB and others in Sacramento immediately criticized the rule and in an unprecedented move, actually asked the SCAQMD Board to reconsider their decision. CARB Czarina Mary Nichols, was particularly incensed and wrote the board expressing her displeasure.

The decision was bought back up for a re-vote March 4th and the board voted 8 to 5 not to reconsider their recently adopted NOx Reclaim Rule.

Then Barry
Then they voted to sack Executive Officer Wallerstein and then appointed SCAQMD’s chief financial officer, Michael O’Kelly, as interim executive officer while they do a search for Barry’s replacement.

What is different now, at least in the case of the SCAQMD is that the board composition has changed because there has been a concerted effort to defeat the left-leaning elected office-holder members of the board and replace them with more business friendly office holders.

This turn of events set Sacramento on fire, with Senate President-Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon vowing to pack the board with three new enviro members appointed by Governor Brown and the Assembly and Senate leadership. They might do it, but if they want to get it done quickly as an “urgency” bill it will require a two-thirds vote of both bodies and Democrats no longer control that level of support in either body.

On March 9th, enviro organizations Earthjustice (a collection of enviro organizations) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) a law firm masquerading as an environmental group filed suit to block the plan. They also deplored the Wallerstein dismissal.

The suit’s claims involve the plan’s “substantive shortcomings,” in violation of state law, as well as the flawed procedure, calling for a declaration that “the approval of the industry proposal was arbitrary and capricious.”

By the Ides of March, the federal EPA weighed in with a letter saying the board’s decision on the Reclaim rule wasn’t kosher.

On March 15th, Deborah Jordan, U.S. EPA Region 9 Air Division Director, sent a letter to O’Kelly, saying the SCAQMD’s actions for reducing oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and PM2.5 were not acceptable and did not meet the Clean Air Act’s standard for applying “reasonably available control measures.”

PM 2.5 Is the Culpritscaqmd
The South Coast air basin did not meet the federal PM2.5, 24-hour standard of 35 micrograms/cubic meter on Dec. 31, as required. The EPA re-classified the region from “moderate” to “serious” non-attainment status. The district also flunked the yearly standard, which it has every year since standards were announced.

Actually, the 24-hour standard was violated at a single monitoring station, at Mira Loma, an area near Riverside, but that’s enough to trigger EPA punishment which can include suspension of federal highway funds for the state.

The state is required to submit revisions to the California State Implementation Plan (SIP), which includes the plan from the South Coast region, by Aug. 14th, 2017, showing how Southern California will meet the standard no later than Dec. 31st, 2019, according to another EPA ruling, posted to the Federal Register, March 15th by Jared Blumenfeld, EPA Region Nine administrator.

Hey, Wait a Minute!
South Coast says EPA is jumping the gun and not following their own process.

In a written response, the local air district called the disapproval of the plan “a technicality” that will be fixed once the newly approved adjustments to its Reclaim trading program are actually sent to the EPA. The agency said the EPA wasn’t able to consider the changes because they were not yet submitted by CARB.

Also, the SCAQMD blamed the rising particle pollution levels, also known as winter smog, on the drought.

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