Four federal and state government bodies have opened, or soon will open, inquiries into the performance of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in controlling air pollution in Los Angeles and the three surrounding counties that comprise the nation's worst smog region.
The audits, which are a direct result of the AQMD's expected failure to meet the federal Clean Air Act's 1987 ozone standard, are the most comprehensive examinations of the AQMD in its 10-year history.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Air Resources Board since June have been examining the AQMD's enforcement of state and federal air pollution laws and whether enough is being done to reduce smog. Audit results are due in several months.
In addition, separate inquiries are planned by the General Accounting Office, the congressional audit agency, as part of a national survey of the country's smoggiest areas, and by a state Senate subcommittee, which has scheduled an oversight hearing for next month. The state inquiry is expected to address not only AQMD's performance but also whether its governing board should be overhauled.
"This is the most intensive review I've seen," acting AQMD Executive Officer James Lents said Tuesday. "I've never seen a review like this."
Because Southern California has the worst air pollution, he added, "every group that wants to look at this issue has chosen L.A. as a place to focus. The most work needs to be done here. Ours is the largest agency trying to do something. They want to see how we're doing it and maybe have suggestions on how it can be done better. We have not seen (the audits) as negative at all."
Criticism by EPA
The AQMD, which is responsible for enforcing state and federal air pollution control laws in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, has come under increasing criticism in the last several months from the EPA.
In April, for example, the EPA criticized the AQMD for not only relaxing air quality rules in some cases but also for failing to implement 17 specific emission-control strategies promised in the district's own 1982 Air Quality Management Plan. Moreover, the EPA said that few of 36 transportation, land use and energy measures have met the clean air goals established in 1982.
The EPA was especially disturbed by a move last year by the AQMD to loosen air pollution control rules covering factories that apply coatings such as paint to metals.
Vapors from the paint contribute to the formation of ozone, the prime ingredient of photochemical smog. The EPA said the AQMD's action was unjustified and conducted its own inspections and brought enforcement actions against eight businesses in the South Coast basin.
Last July, those eight agreed to comply with the original rule, which the EPA said proved its contention that there was no reason for the AQMD to relax the rule.
The joint audit by the EPA and state Air Resources Board will examine the criteria used by the district in issuing permits, why it grants exceptions to the rules, and how effective its inspection and enforcement programs are. Auditors completed gathering the data last Friday and are now in the process of analyzing and interpreting the information.
At the same time, GAO auditors are just beginning a review of how the district plans to lower ozone levels since it clearly will not meet the December, 1987, deadline for achieving the ozone standard.The GAO plans similar reviews in Houston, Tex., and Charlotte, N.C.
The AQMD has said it does not expect to meet the ozone standard of .12 parts of ozone per million parts of air until the year 2020, and perhaps never.
Acting at the direction of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), the GAO will examine what additional steps are necessary to meet the standard and whether the EPA, state and AQMD have a satisfactory plan to attain it.
Word of the GAO audit was welcomed by Kelly Hayes-Raitt, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air.
Glad of Attention
"It doesn't surprise me that Southern California would be used as a model since we breathe some of the dirtiest air in the country. I'm delighted that our smoggy air is finally getting national attention and hopefully that will inspire our local air district to do a better job in protecting our public health," Hayes-Raitt said.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside) said Tuesday that his subcommittee of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee will convene an AQMD oversight hearing Oct. 22, probably in Ontario.
"I'm concerned whether they're really doing the job they're set up to do," Presley said. "I think it's time to have an oversight hearing and examine what they're doing, how they're doing it. I want to look into the board, how it's constituted, who appoints them and how long they serve," said Presley, who is author of the state's motor vehicle Smog Check law.
He added that he was "not out to get anybody" but to "be constructive."
Presley recently came to the defense of AQMD board member Sabrina Schiller, the Senate's appointee, when another lawmaker, Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino), sought her ouster for having criticized the votes of fellow AQMD members who are locally elected officials in Ayala's Senate district.