By Kevin Hall
Clean Air Acting
How many Valley Air Board members does it take to violate the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law for government agencies? Eight, if the full 15-member board is present. Seven if they’re down to 13 in attendance, which was the case at last month’s meeting. The more important question: what or who would lead elected officials from throughout the San Joaquin Valley to collude in such a manner?
The big item on the agenda was a vote on the 2012 PM-2.5 Attainment Plan. That dry-sounding name is the label for the federally required plan to rid our Valley’s air of its most deadly pollutants. These microscopic solids hang in the moist air of fall and winter. Local doctors call these months the “heart attack season,” one of the severe problems caused by particulates. Other acute effects are strokes and asthma attacks. Long-term damage includes genetic mutations in the DNA of children that lead to severe allergies, Type I diabetes, gastrointestinal disease and asthma.
Were the bad actors in this melodrama perhaps seeking to circumvent the law because they were scheming to make their No. 1 priority the protection of people’s health? Hardly. Health advocates were calling for rejection of the plan because it is nearly devoid of much-needed regulations.
Nor were these bit players conspiring because the plan before them was too strict. With few exceptions, one lobbyist after another gave the plan a standing ovation. According to reviews from the oil and gas fat cats of Kern County, the mega-dairy ammonia-petards in Tulare County, and nut processors, farm bureaus and sprawl developers from all over, the plan was boffo! That’s because it did not contain a single new limit on their polluting selves.
High Stakes, Low Drama
Act I began in Washington, D.C., a few weeks earlier when the Board’s CEO appeared before a kangaroo Congressional subcommittee hearing convened by one of the House of Representatives’ most anti-regulatory right-wingers. The Board gladly sent its top bureaucrat to join the chorus of attacks on the EPA and the Clean Air Act. Their complaint is a familiar refrain: the Act’s provisions are too strict, its health-driven time lines too tight and the multiple standards for various pollutants too confusing. Their logical conclusion: “Modernize” it, “reform” it, “streamline” it, you know, kill it.
When the curtain rose on the second act in Fresno, the audience was treated to staff’s lengthy soliloquies, lobbyists’ cheers and health advocates’ criticisms, but it wasn’t until after the close of public comment that the charade began in earnest. One after another, seven board members feigned interest, reflection and, finally, insight into a proposal that the plan shouldn’t be voted on at all. Their scripted justification was that EPA had recently announced a new, lower standard for particulate levels averaged over an entire year, and that this somehow negated this plan for 24-hour averages.
It was a red-faced moment when an EPA representative pointed out the disconnect. The curtain came crashing down, but before the EPA’s deus ex machina intervention, the Board was being egged on by its Iago-CEO who called on them to “elevate” the “dysfunction” of the Clean Air Act by tabling the plan. The thin plotline was that this would somehow engineer a crisis that would further the anti-regulatory cause back in D.C.
The surreal twist to this matinee performance was that, unbeknown to the players, the audience was aware that board members had been contacted prior to the meeting with their scripted parts, which made all of the ham-handed acting painfully entertaining.
But industry had the last laugh. Even though the Board members finished the day with egg on their faces, they voted to approve a near-useless plan. Ironically, they had almost done the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Kevin Hall is director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ) based in Fresno, online at www.calcleanair.org and on Facebook. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improve the health of Californians. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at SJVair.