Spokane’s air quality board hired Eric Skelton to be a tough air cop. His beat: a gritty county where people breathe too much pollution.
He’s had successes. Spokane’s air is cleaner than when Skelton arrived from Sacramento, Calif., in 1991, due largely to measures he’s pushed to curb dust, smoke and carbon monoxide.
By December, Spokane is expected to meet federal carbon monoxide standards for the first time since being labeled an area that wasn’t meeting the standard in 1991.
In the process of cleaning the air, Skelton, 44, has made some powerful enemies. In a political climate hostile to regulators, his $70,000 job as director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority may be in jeopardy.
Area grass growers are fighting Skelton’s efforts to cut the days they can torch their fields and to gradually reduce their grass seed acreage.
Today, he and the SCAPCA board are hearing the first of several dozen appeals by farmers who don’t like his decision to limit their bluegrass acreage.
Skelton has clashed with the city over burning tires and pesticide containers in the trash incinerator. He got caught in a tug-of-war between Colbert neighbors and the city over odors at the compost plant.
This year, grass growers got the state Legislature to deregulate their field burning season, weakening Skelton’s clout.
Also, two outspoken Republicans who joined the five-member SCAPCA board this year are highly critical of Skelton.
County commissioners Steve Hasson and Phil Harris say they don’t like Skelton’s style. They want a more “neutral” director who leaves decisions to them.
“He’s too arrogant. His style is autocratic,” Hasson said.
Harris, who’s been on the board only a few months, criticizes Skelton for not giving him enough information to make decisions.
“I’m not at a point to decide whether to terminate or keep him,” Harris said.
Skelton declined to comment on the board’s tug-of-war over his job.
SCAPCA board president Jan Monaco, executive director of the Spokane County Medical Society, disagreed with the commissioners.
“I think Eric’s done a fine job,” Monaco said.
In the debate over the grass smoke that fouls Spokane’s skies each year, the calls Monaco gets are overwhelmingly in favor of Skelton’s tough stand.
“The calls I get say, ‘Do something about this unhealthy grass smoke. Give us more regulation, not less,”’ she said.
Skelton’s problems began in March, when Hasson joined the board. In his first SCAPCA meeting, Hasson jumped on Skelton for taking stands on policy issues.
“Where is your neutrality,?” Hasson asked.
“I’ve never been told that I need to take a neutral position. I’ve always advocated to the board the way I think we should go, and I’ve never hesitated to do that,” Skelton said.
Harris, whose campaign was partly funded by grass growers, has joined in the criticism.
The commissioners launched a performance review of Skelton that started in September and continues next month behind closed doors.
It’s “unprecedented” to have an annual performance review take so long, Monaco said.
The dispute isn’t just a personality clash. It’s a sign SCAPCA could pull back from activist policies initiated in 1990 under the leadership of then-Commissioner Pat Mummey.
At that time, the board demoted SCAPCA Director Fred Gray for being too lax on polluters and not assertive enough.
The board wanted someone to push for a countywide oxygenated gas program to reduce carbon monoxide; plan strategies to woo people out of their cars and into buses; and curb dust and smoke pollution, including field burning.
Spokane had repeatedly flunked air quality standards for carbon monoxide and particulates. Tough federal sanctions on industry loomed if the county couldn’t clean up its air.
Skelton, an air toxics expert at Sacramento’s air agency, was the top choice in a national search.
His authority came from the fact that Spokane’s air was so dirty. Congress gave counties that fail clean air standards broad powers to cut pollution, for health reasons.
Skelton has used a mix of techniques, from fines and inspections to a complex pollution-trading system for grass growers, in efforts to clear the air.
Skelton “has exerted strong leadership in pursuing clean air for Spokane’s citizens,” said Grant Pfeifer, regional head of state Department of Ecology air programs.
Industry leaders say he’s been professional and fair.
“We come under the air toxics regulations they administer, and we welcome SCAPCA at any time,” said Diane Ressler of the Boeing Co.’s Spokane plant.
Skelton hasn’t always had support from his board, especially when trying to penalize city and county facilities for polluting the air.
He clashed with Phil Williams, Spokane’s solid waste director, last year over Williams’ decision to burn 60 truckloads of Canadian pesticide containers in the trash incinerator.
Skelton proposed a fine, but the SCAPCA board voted against it.
Skelton also frowned on Williams’ plan to burn used tires in the incinerator. He said the practice would require a major review of the plant’s air permit. The city never applied for a permit change.
In both cases, environmental groups backed Skelton, said Bonnie Mager of the Washington Environmental Council.
“Eric has a lot of integrity. He’s the best agency head in town in providing information for citizens. But the board often won’t let him do his job” when it involves penalties to public facilities, Mager said.
Skelton’s fate could be decided soon after the next closed-door performance review Dec. 7.
Monaco and City Councilman Mike Brewer are backing Skelton.
“Our air is much better off than five years ago. Eric has done a good job,” Brewer said.
Fairfield dentist Harry Gibbons, a longtime SCAPCA board member, will be the swing vote.
“Eric’s been the kind of director we wanted,” Gibbons said. He gives Skelton an “A-plus” for meeting the national carbon monoxide standard.
But Skelton sometimes hasn’t kept the board well enough informed, especially on the grass field burning controversy, Gibbons said.
Gibbons says he’s “neutral” on whether to keep Skelton.
Skelton says he isn’t actively job-hunting, but is keeping his “eyes open” as the review continues.
In January, the board’s balance of power could shift when Gibbons steps down. But Harris said it’s likely Skelton will keep his job.
“To terminate someone, I have to look in the mirror and say, have I allowed that person to be successful?” Harris said. “Skelton is now starting to learn what my expectations are of him.”
“This isn’t a Stalinist purge,” said Hasson. “This guy is a really good technician, but he needs to communicate better.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo