Dan Walters: Storm blows again over diesel-soot rule

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger staged a set-piece media event in a Southern California railyard Monday and, among other things, echoed the assertions of his air quality regulator, Mary Nichols, that diesel truck and locomotive soot is a major health hazard.

But is it?

There's actually an intense argument in scientific and regulatory circles about diesel "particulates" – so intense that the leading academic critic of proposed diesel soot regulations has been ousted from his professorship at UCLA for, he says, not going with the academic and political flow.

Last year, the professor, Dr. James Enstrom, blew the whistle on an Air Resources Board staffer, Hien Tran, whose report on diesel emissions was the basis for tough ARB regulations, telling board officials that Tran had falsified his academic credentials.

ARB chair Nichols and other officials kept the revelation a secret, even from other board members, until one member, John Telles of Fresno, did his own investigation and complained about the cover-up.

Nichols disowned Tran but left his research, concluding that diesel soot was a major cause of premature deaths, intact and began writing regulations. A few weeks later, UCLA's department of environmental health sciences began termination proceedings against Enstrom, despite his three-decade-long career at the university.

Enstrom says he's being canned for refusing to go along with the prevailing departmental view that diesel soot is a killer. "My research didn't show any relationship between premature deaths and the level of fine particulate air pollution in California," he said Monday. "These people (in the department hierarchy) have just decided to … hold a secret vote and voted me out."

Unless overturned on appeal, Enstrom's dismissal will take effect in two weeks. He said he was given ever-changing reasons, ranging from financial to a clash of philosophy, but suspects that his revelations about Tran and the department's research grants from the ARB sparked a drive to "get me terminated and silenced."

The California Dump Truck Owners Association and other groups opposed to the pending diesel rules, in a lengthy letter to the UCLA administration last week, complained about his firing.

"Neither the university nor the School of Public Health would make any personnel decision because an individual took an unpopular position," the school's assistant dean, Sarah Anderson, said in an e-mail. "The university considers personnel matters to be confidential."

It's another unsavory chapter in the diesel soot saga. By all appearances, not only did the ARB cover up Tran's falsification but its sycophants on the UCLA faculty are punishing the man who blew the whistle.

If the Legislature's oversight committees and investigative staffs were doing their jobs, they'd delve into this mess. Don't hold your breath.


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