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NEWS ANALYSIS : Truckers Gaining Influence Over Air Board : Environment: Critics say Wilson has drastically curbed agency's independence. Industry contends that it just wants to avoid unreasonable rules that could paralyze state's economy.

November 06, 1994|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Few sources of air pollution are as reviled by Californians as convoys of diesel trucks that belch dense, black clouds of smoke. But no one is exerting as much influence on the Wilson Administration's clean air policy as California's trucking industry.

Special interests--most notably the California Trucking Assn.--have wielded increasing influence over the state Air Resources Board's key decisions because Gov. Pete Wilson and his top environmental aide have stripped the agency of much of its independence, according to past and present officials of the agency and other air-quality observers.

Although other industries have input into the Wilson Administration's clean-air strategies, no group has won as many recent concessions as California's 800,000 trucking industry employees. At stake are future regulations aimed at the 200 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides emitted daily from diesel trucks, one of the largest sources of air pollution in the state.

The turning point at the board--world-renowned for its bipartisan independence and innovative automotive standards--came a year ago, when Wilson ousted longtime Chairwoman Jananne Sharpless. Her removal came amid a conflict with truckers over a mandate for low-sulfur diesel fuel that brought price increases and some engine malfunctions.

"That turned the trucking association into a 500-pound gorilla overnight," a former top-ranking air board administrator told The Times. "They were always difficult to deal with. But they didn't have the clout to become a problem. Now I hear . . . that every major issue goes through a political filter first."

Truck company owners were tired of the air board ignoring their concerns and suggestions about the regulations they face, so they now directly call the governor's office, where they say they get results, said Dave Titus of the California Trucking Assn.

"We look at it as democracy in action," Titus said. "Maybe we're fed up and we're empowered, but I think it is (all regulated industries), not just us. . . . The only thing independent about ARB was their independence from economic reality."

The undercurrent of concern over the air board's direction is emerging at a crucial juncture for California. Facing mandates set by Congress, the state must mold a far-reaching, 20-year clean-air strategy by Nov. 15 or face sanctions and economically disruptive anti-smog rules proposed by the Clinton Administration.

The air board convenes a two-day session to consider a controversial staff-drafted plan Wednesday--the day after voters choose their governor and less than a week before the final version is due in Washington.

Last week, the agency came under fire for its choice of a consultant to gauge the plan's economic impact. The air board hired the same San Francisco-based firm paid by the trucking and oil industries for similar work used to oppose air-quality rules. The last-minute economic study comes at the behest of the governor.

The contract "gives, at the least, the appearance that ARB's independence has been severely eroded," warned Jane Hall, a Cal State Fullerton economist who serves on the state's Research Screening Committee, in a letter to air board Chairwoman Jacqueline Schafer.

Also, at the urging of the trucking industry, the air board staff plans to temporarily suspend the beginning roadside inspections to test trucks for excessive smoke until engineers can agree on a reliable measuring device. The board in December will consider a 1 1/2-year delay.

The trucking industry is proud of its role in helping draft air pollution policy, saying unreasonable rules could paralyze the entire economy by disrupting transport of three-quarters of California's manufactured freight.

Truck company owners, who Titus says have in California more than 800,000 employees and an annual payroll of $29 billion, have overwhelmingly supported Wilson's reelection campaign, with one Los Angeles trucking executive ranking among Wilson's top 20 contributors by giving $106,600.

The Air Resources Board is probably the state's most powerful and far-reaching environmental entity, capable of transforming automobiles, trucks, fuels and other sources of pollution without legislative approval. From catalytic converters to electric cars to low-emissions gasoline, the air board's futuristic rules over the last two decades have fostered technologies and standards copied around the world.

According to air board officials, the governor's office rarely intervened in the past, leaving Executive Officer James Boyd and his staff insulated from partisan pressures while drafting rules considered by their board.

But today's air board is not the same agency that served under Gov. George Deukmejian, or even under Wilson two years ago.

"Not since Ronald Reagan has this agency been this demoralized and this lost in its mission," said John White, a longtime air-quality consultant in Sacramento for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

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