LOS ANGELES (AP) — The longtime leader of the agency that regulates air pollution for much of smoggy Southern California was fired in a closed-door vote criticized by environmental groups.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District's governing board made no statement about what led it to terminate Barry Wallerstein on Friday in a 7-6 vote after he had served nearly two decades at the helm of the agency.
Republicans gained a majority on the regional board recently and supporters of Wallerstein suggested he was being fired so the agency could favor big polluters and roll back regulations that have helped clean up the notoriously bad air that remains the smoggiest in the nation.
"The big concern is they're kicking him out to replace him with someone who's industry friendly and less committed to environmental regulations," said Morgan Wyenn, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We can only theorize or make educated guesses because the board has been very silent in explaining what they're doing."
There was a noted shift in direction on the board when it voted in December to adopt less stringent regulations for emissions of nitrogen oxides, a key component of smog, Wyenn said. Wallerstein and his staff pushed for stricter regulations, but the board adopted weaker rules supported by the Western States Petroleum Association.
Some observers noted a parallel with last month's decision by another powerful public agency to get rid of its leader. The decision to dismiss the California Coastal Commission's executive brought criticisms that the powerful coastal agency frequently wedged between property rights and environmental concerns had tilted in favor of developers.
Dozens of members of the public spoke Friday in favor of Wallerstein before the vote at the agency's Diamond Bar headquarters, including several people who live near refineries, oil wells, farmland and other sources of pollution. Many spoke of family and friends who struggle to breathe because of asthma and other respiratory ailments.
The agency monitors air pollution throughout the region and is responsible for passing regulations to meet clean air standards in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
It has a broad reach and recently ordered that Southern California Gas Co. cap its leaking well near the San Fernando Valley. It also worked with the company that produces the popular Sriracha hot sauce after neighbors complained that the hot peppers were burning their eyes and making them cough.
While the agency is seen as being on the cutting edge of setting stiff pollution controls, the region still fails to meet federal air quality standards because of persistent smog and soot.
Evan Gillespie of the Sierra Club said it was vital to keep Wallerstein in his role as the agency prepares to develop a broader plan for air cleanup that will have an impact on a generation.
"We've watched over time as this board has watered down life-saving regulation after life-saving regulation," Gillespie said. "It throws the whole organization into turmoil at this critical moment."
Wallerstein spoke briefly before the vote, saying he hadn't asked anyone to speak on his behalf and had even encouraged some people not to speak.
"From the bottom of my heart, thank you for coming out today," he said.
Wallerstein had worked at the agency since 1984 and had been executive officer since 1997.
The board voted unanimously to appoint Michael O'Kelly, deputy executive and chief financial officer, as interim executive.
Board member Joe Lyou, who voted against firing Wallerstein, said he couldn't reveal what happened in the closed session.
He said he was surprised when the item was added to the agenda earlier in the week, but said the timing wasn't coincidental. He said it was too simplistic to say it was a matter of business and environmental issues clashing.
Lyou, who is also president and chief executive of the Coalition for Clean Air, said he and Wallerstein didn't always agree, but he praised his work, expertise and ability to work with people from different viewpoints.
"I am certainly disappointed," Lyou said. "This is an unfortunate way for him to leave an agency that he dedicated so much of his life to."