Governor urged to add health experts to air board

Area health professionals and clean-air advocates are urging Gov. Schwarzenegger to sign a bill that would give health experts two seats on the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board.

The bill, SB 719 by state Sen. Michael Machado, D-Linden, would expand the board from 11 to 15 members, with the new members to be two medical experts appointed by the governor and two representatives of the largest cities in the valley.

Backers of the bill contend that the current board is dominated by county supervisors who listen more to the industries they regulate than to valley residents who breathe the dirty air.

"As I see it, the board is made up of politicians," said Dr. Steve Benak, a retired radiation oncologist from Modesto, speaking at a news conference at the Stanislaus Medical Society office. Benak, who serves on the air district's hearing board, stressed that people with expertise on the health effects of air pollution should be involved in board decisions.

Others speaking in favor of the bill were representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Stockton, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Merced- Mariposa County Asthma Coalition.

"The Stockton Diocese sees air pollution in the Central Valley, not as a scientific or political issue, but as a moral issue," said Betsy Reifsnider, environmental justice coordinator for the diocese.

She called the legislation "an essential step in reversing the deadly effects of air pollution. This literally is a life-and-death issue for our children, our eld- erly and the poor."

Those wanting to change the makeup of the air district's leadership also suggested that the governor let the bill become law without his signature because of what they see as powerful interests lined up against the legislation.

The changes are opposed by the air district board and the valley's agricultural industry. They would like the governor to veto the bill.

Bill O'Brien, chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors and an air district board member, said Tuesday that the reforms are not necessary given the district's progress in cleaning up the air.

"Why fix something that is not broken?" he said. "I could see it if the air pollution was getting worse and we weren't doing our jobs, but the evidence is to the contrary."

Wayne Zipser, executive director of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, said the current board members understand the ag industry and ensure that regulations are not onerous for business.

"They are elected officials, and I think they have to be accountable since they are elected officials," Zipser said.

As a sign of improvement, the air district declared six "Spare the Air" days this summer, down from 19 in 2006 and 11 in 2005. But critics say the district has dragged its feet on addressing ozone and particle pollution, and point to the high asthma rate among valley children.

The board includes a county supervisor from each of the eight counties in the district and three city representatives. If SB 719 becomes law, the governor would appoint two health experts who live in the valley. The largest cities in the district would have more representation. Two of the new board members would be from cities with more than 100,000 population, such as Modesto, Stockton, Fresno or Bakersfield.

Melissa Kelly-Ortega, program associate for the Merced- Mariposa County Asthma Coalition, has a 3-year-old daughter, Satya, who has a chronic cough caused by a respiratory illness.

"This is what you are going to see happening if we continue down the path we are going," she said.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.