The Plot to Muzzle the Agency That Was Supposed to Clean up Our Smoggy Skies

The Air Quality Management District is moving to a more “business-friendly” model

In March Southern Californians learned that the air they were breathing—the worst in the country—was about to get worse. That was the month a parliamentary coup took place within the agency responsible for keeping our skies clean. The new Republican majority in the Air Quality Management District’s boardroom had just voted en bloc to dismiss environmental scientist Barry Wallerstein, the group’s longtime executive officer. His transgression? Opposing the board’s approval in December of a proposal—essentially drafted for it by the Western States Petroleum Association—that would allow refineries, power plants, and other mega-polluters to spew more ozone and particulate matter into the atmosphere. Wallerstein’s ouster was a signal that the agency is moving away from reducing smog through tight regulations to a more “business-friendly” model.

Republicans on the AQMD who ousted Barry Wallerstein (center) cited the need to look at the economic impact of pollution-fighting measures
Republicans on the AQMD who ousted Barry Wallerstein (center) cited the need to look at the economic impact of pollution-fighting measures

The AQMD was created in 1976 and grew out of an earlier era of discovery and muckraking, when Americans were told that the water they drank, the cars they drove, and the cigarettes they smoked were killing them. In turn, business interests, including the WSPA, have contended that regulation would be the death of them. And so the state’s richest lobby embarked on a long-range plan to push local officials to appoint a more amenable AQMD. “The fossil fuel industry is the mastermind behind the takeover,” says Earthjustice attorney Adrian Martinez, “at a time when 15 people a day die from air pollution in our region. We consistently get Fs from the American Lung Association for our air quality.” His is one of several environmental advocacy groups suing to stop agency implementation of the WSPA’s air pollution proposal.

The board is appointed by state and county officials, and its majority, established late last year, is a reminder that most local governments in this ultra-blue state’s 58 counties are controlled by Republicans. Drive 30 miles inland and you return to a California still ruled by the Grand Old Party, from the desert wastes to our alpine borders.

While some environmental activists caution against drawing parallels between the AQMD putsch and the state Coastal Commission’s recent sacking of its executive director, they claim that other regulatory agencies, such as the California Department of Conservation and especially its Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, have also been “captured” through oil-friendly appointments made by Governor Jerry Brown. Days after the AQMD’s dismissal of its chief, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Democrat, announced he would introduce legislation to add three new members to the board, with the potential to spark an interparty war in the agency and under the capitol dome. Today, even the air we breathe is polarized.