State air board must clean its own house

The California Air Resources Board recently threw out a tainted study about the health effects of diesel truck emissions after it was disclosed that the author of the report had lied about his academic credentials. CARB officials had known since December 2008 that the researcher had falsified his credentials, but did not tell board members.

As a former CARB board member and chairman, I was heartened to see current Chairman Mary Nichols’ gracious apology at the Dec. 9 board meeting for the recent mistakes that have been made in the on- and off-road diesel rule-making process.

While it was noted and appreciated, more progress remains to be made in rebuilding confidence in several of CARB’s program areas.

As part of last month’s board meeting, the board itself, along with members of the regulated community, Legislature and Schwarzenegger administration, have stepped forward to demand transparency to ensure that recent past patterns not repeat themselves. The CARB board members who demonstrated their integrity by publicly questioning the sullied technical process surrounding the diesel rules will find parallels in the CARB staff’s treatment of the makers of sand cars, also called dune buggies – recreational vehicles with large tires designed for use on sandy terrain. And there are parallels to the treatment of members of the activist group Californians for Enforcement Reform and Transparency.

What has emerged, it seems, is an attitude and belief among some CARB staff that the ends justify the means and that full disclosure and transparency are not required before the board or the public. This runs counter to the very tenets of democratic law and due process.

It is a system that begs for scrutiny and reform and can only benefit from more board-level involvement. As it now stands, the CARB chief counsel plays the role of a sort-of regulatory sheriff, prosecutor and judge. It defies due process and fundamental separation-of-power principles that CARB staff – or any government official – could be allowed to assume all these positions of power – with unlimited discretion and without any meaningful checks and balances.

To make matters worse, the CARB staff does not make public its formula for assessing fines. Its coda: “We decide. You pay. No questions asked.” This system harms businesses and eliminates incentives that might have existed for California businesses – including thousands of small, struggling companies – to work proactively and cooperatively with CARB in seeking sensible, cost-effective paths to compliance.

In an especially egregious case, CARB bullied more than 35 small California businesses that manufacture sand cars by retroactively imposing emission rules on recreational vehicles built before the regulations even became law in August 2007.

CARB’s actions have real human consequences. Kit Enger, the head of the Sand Car Manufacturer Industry, told CARB recently that his members have been devastated by a settlement paid to CARB of more than $600,000. It has been widely reported that, as a direct result of the settlement, five sand car manufacturers were forced out of business.

As a former CARB chairman, I am keenly disappointed to see such conduct, which can only lead to a loss of trust and the erosion of CARB’s effectiveness as an agency, especially during economic hardships – a time when true, transparent leadership virtues are needed more than ever.

It should not work this way. Indeed, California’s leadership role in pollution matters is founded on a more honorable tradition, and one that proves more effective.

Make no mistake: Ensuring clean air is a vital mission for all Californians. Indeed, the state aspires to be a national and world leader in climate matters, which requires being above reproach on all internal processes. To achieve these goals and preserve its credibility and integrity, it is imperative that CARB act with openness and respect for the law.

CARB’s mission is devoted to cleaning the air. But in terms of the way it has operated in several areas, it must also clear the air.

Dunlap served as chairman of the California Air Resources Board from 1994-1999. He currently owns a California-based advocacy and consulting group that includes among its clientele Californians for Enforcement Reform and Transparency. For more information on possible CARB reforms, go online to

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