[Source: 89.3KPCC] “This is a textbook example of institutional racism.”
That was the reaction from Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León’s (D-Los Angeles) after his colleagues in the Assembly voted down a bill he wrote that would have added seats for low-income and minority representatives on the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s board.
The agency is responsible for regulating air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin, which is still considered to have the dirtiest air in the country despite decades of progress.
Senate Bill 1387 failed this week by a vote of 36 to 30 in the Assembly with 14 members, including some who represent the communities most impacted by air pollution, abstaining.
That leaves the make up of the 13-member AQMD board intact, with just two people of color and two members living in areas hit hardest by air pollution..
De León introduced SB 1387 in February in response to moves by the AQMD’s new Republican majority to fire long-time executive officer Barry Wallerstein and pass new emissions controls favored by the oil industry.
The bill would have added three new state-appointed members to the board that must live in or work in areas “disproportionately burdened by and vulnerable to high levels of pollution and issues of environmental justice, including, but not limited to, communities with diverse racial and ethnic populations and communities with low-income populations.”
Currently the board consists of three state-appointed members and 10 local elected officials.
Environmental justice organizations were excited about the bill from the get-go and became even more determined for it to pass after AQMD released a new Air Quality Management Plan in June that favored voluntary efforts to reduce pollution. The plan relies less on traditional top-down regulation on large, stationary polluters, instead favoring voluntary cuts and incentives for facilities to adopt clean air technology.
“It was a shock,” said Michele Hasson with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, which is based in the Inland Empire.
“When we saw that plan it was more than clear that those making decisions at AQMD really are not addressing the concerns of those who are bearing the burden of pollution, ” she said.
Business groups, including the LA County Business Federation, were happy to see DeLeon’s bill fail.
Federation CEO Tracy Hernandez said the idea of having more state control over a regional governing board was alarming.
“To try to control 40 percent of the board with state appointees was such slap in the face to the local elected officials,” she said. “We just thought that was a terrible reach of state government to try to undo a regional air district.”
She said if people aren’t happy with the make-up of the board now, they can change it under the current system. “It’s a very public process,” she said, “so anyone that feels strongly can get involved and change it.”
But Senator De León maintains the board needs an overhaul. “Any time people of color are excluded from decision-making processes directly tied to their health and well-being, fundamental change is needed,” he said in a statement.
Ultimately, supporters failed to convince enough legislators to pass the bill. There were so many environment and climate-related bills this session, legislators may have been experiencing fatigue, said Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles.
“I got the sense like, you’ve had enough, you don’t get everything you want,” she said, referring to the passage of climate change bills AB 197 and SB 32, which extend and deepen the state’s commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“Some legislators thought, ‘well I voted yes on that, so I don’t have to do anything else.’”
Hasson said future attempts to reform the AQMD board will have to make the issues of air quality and environmental justice appeal to a wider audience.
“SB 1387 got overshadowed by other big, sexy bills,” she said. “It seemed more local. Right now we have to take a step back and say: how can we make this that big sexy bill?”
September 1, 2016