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AQMD Deeply Divided Over Resignations

August 10, 1996|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Shocked by the en masse resignation of nine of 11 of their technical advisors, the Southland's air quality board Friday displayed the deep and bitter division that has long provoked doubts about its ability to clean the nation's foulest air.

Several South Coast Air Quality Management District board members requested a full airing of the scientists' criticisms, saying such a harsh rebuke from well-respected experts has shaken their confidence in the staff's new plan for combating smog over the next 15 years.

The advisors--physicians, chemists, economists, engineers and other scientists from area universities and consulting firms--quit Thursday, effective immediately. Some of the nation's most respected experts in air pollution, they helped mold efforts for the past two decades that have led to dramatically cleaner skies in the four-county region.

The scientists said they resigned in protest because they believe the AQMD's new strategies are insufficient and misguided. They further stated that the agency has lost sight of its goal mandated by Congress--healthful air throughout the Los Angeles region by 2010.

The impact of the walkout by the advisors is viewed with wide disparity: To some observers and insiders it means that the region's 13 million residents will never breathe healthful air because the AQMD will become even more sidetracked by political manipulation. Others say it marks the end of a bygone era when zealots and relics sacrificed jobs and businesses, and that now the region is embarking on sane and balanced regulation.

Mike Antonovich, one of the AQMD board's most conservative members, called the resignations "a breath of fresh air."

"This gives us an opportunity to have an advisory council that understands common sense solutions and rejects the extremist positions from the environmental community that wants to shut down our economy," he said at the AQMD's monthly meeting Friday.

Antonovich, appointed to the AQMD board by his fellow Los Angeles County supervisors, said that past smog rules have led to "an exodus of jobs" and that the board now has "put forth a job-friendly position."

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The bold revolt of its inner circle of advisors is the most striking example yet of the turmoil that has gripped the nation's premier air pollution agency for at least two years.

The AQMD is struggling for its own survival--trapped by a long, severe recession and targeted as too powerful and economically destructive by conservative state leaders. Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) has said he favors abolishing or overhauling the board, and several bills to weaken its authority have been introduced.

John Nelson, press secretary to Pringle, said the AQMD remains "a job-killing machine. They've just slowed the pace."

Although air quality has improved because of regional and state regulations enacted in the 1970s and 1980s, the board has not adopted any significant rules cutting emissions in nearly three years. Instead it has rolled back measures to ease the impact on local businesses.

In their resignation letter, eight of the advisors cited the AQMD's "lack of coherent rule-making" and "the absence of concerted rule-making in the proposed new plan." They also lambasted the agency for scaling back efforts to inspect and penalize industrial polluters for violating smog control rules.

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The draft smog plan, unveiled by the staff a week ago, spells out measures for industry, vehicles and consumer products to be enacted over 10 years. It would cut about one-third fewer emissions and discard or shelve three dozen of about 100 measures in a plan adopted two years ago. After a series of public hearings in September, the AQMD board is tentatively scheduled to vote on the plan Oct. 25.

The AQMD analyzed pollution for two years and reached the controversial conclusion that the region's air can carry more emissions than previously believed without violating health standards. The analysis says smog controls on cars, factories and other sources have worked better than planned--cutting emissions 20% between 1990 and 1993.

The AQMD's executive officer, James Lents, said in an interview that the resignations "will hurt public confidence, but the program is scientifically based, and we stand behind it."

Discarding "marginal" rules is necessary given the political and economic climate, he said.

"We still have a Legislature who claims we've gone too far" in regulations aimed at business, Lents said.

But Arthur Winer, a UCLA atmospheric scientist who quit the advisory panel Thursday after serving 14 years, said the region's progress toward cleaner air could be reversed unless the AQMD stops backing down.

"We still have a long way to go. We're still a factor of two from meeting the ozone standard and we need to redouble our efforts to meet the particulates standard," Winer said.

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