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Clean-air cop faces backlash

Mon., Aug. 29, 2005

Tuesday in Riverfront Park, Eric Skelton and other regional officials will help Spokane celebrate a key achievement: getting off the federal government’s “dirty air” list of cities flunking carbon monoxide and particulate standards.

The city hasn’t violated carbon monoxide standards since 1996 or limits for particle pollution since 1993 and no longer is labeled a “non-attainment area” under the federal Clean Air Act.

But in the constant tug of war between polluters and public health, Skelton’s role as Spokane’s chief clean-air cop has earned him some enemies. Now he’s facing a regulatory backlash.

“We’ll have a celebration on Tuesday. On Thursday, I’m going to get thumped,” Skelton said.

On Thursday, Skelton’s leadership of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority is expected to come under renewed attack. The SCAPCA board is listening to recent calls by some local businesses for Skelton to be fired and the county clean-air agency to be abolished.

The board includes two Republican county commissioners, Todd Mielke and Phil Harris, who signaled their disapproval of SCAPCA staff at an Aug. 18 special meeting packed with hostile developers.

The meeting was convened to hear complaints from Inland Asphalt and Northwest Renovators about permitting procedures followed by the clean-air agency. Critics pounced on SCAPCA’s regulatory role.

The meeting agenda was tossed aside as Stanley Schwartz, a private attorney who represents Inland Asphalt and the cities of Airway Heights and Liberty Lake, delivered a lengthy critique. He called on the board to conduct an outside performance audit of SCAPCA – a review that could result in eliminating the agency and turning over its enforcement powers to Washington state.

Schwartz, in an interview Friday, said he was representing only himself at the meeting, not his corporate or municipal clients. But several of his clients are frustrated with SCAPCA’s “heavy-handed” enforcement, Schwartz said.

Schwartz was also the interim attorney for the city of Spokane Valley, where officials expressed displeasure when the city was forming with having to pay approximately $100,000 in local assessments to SCAPCA – revenue used to help pay for permits and inspections. All cities and towns in Spokane County contribute to SCAPCA’s budget.

The SCAPCA board also voted in August to postpone daily fines levied by staff against Northwest Renovators Inc. for failing to clean up asbestos in a building in the 8700 block of East Sprague.

Doug Gore, one of the owners of Northwest Renovators, called businesses regulated by SCAPCA to encourage those with criticisms to attend the special meeting, said Kristin Nester, environmental compliance chief at Fairchild Air Force Base. “I told him we’ve had good working relationships with SCAPCA staff over the years,” Nester said.

At the meeting, Harris called for the Spokane County prosecutor to review Northwest Renovators’ claim that SCAPCA staff fraudulently altered asbestos inspection reports – a charge Skelton denies. Harris was on vacation Friday and did not return a call seeking comment.

Jim Emacio, the county’s civil deputy, said Friday that he’s obtained copies of the asbestos reports and has provided them to county Prosecutor Steve Tucker. The documents will be turned over to the Spokane Police Department next week for possible action because SCAPCA offices are located within the city limits, Emacio said Friday.

Dr. Kim Thorburn, head of the Spokane County Regional Health District, defended Skelton at the August meeting, saying the criticism was unfair and one-sided, prompting a rebuke from Harris, who said he was disappointed to see her there.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire recently picked Thorburn to head the state Board of Health.

The attack on Skelton is one more effort to suppress vigorous environmental protection, Thorburn said Friday. She said it’s similar to the Spokane Regional Health Board’s vote of “no confidence” in her last December after she tried to enforce uniform sanitation standards for espresso stands.

“Eric Skelton is a nationally recognized air-quality specialist. We are lucky to have him. All of us who care about public health and the environment need to be concerned about what’s going on with SCAPCA,” Thorburn said.

The Aug. 18 meeting “wasn’t meant to be malicious in any way,” said SCAPCA board chairman Matthew Pederson, an Airway Heights restaurant owner and city councilman who arranged the special meeting.

Pederson said he isn’t personally opposed to Skelton but supports a board discussion of SCAPCA’s future.

Public health and clean-air activists alarmed by the tone of the meeting have alerted their supporters to attend the board’s next meeting on Thursday.

“Message to politicians: do not dismantle Spokane’s clean-air protections,” said local physician and Sierra Club activist Dr. John Osborn in an e-mail circulated last week.

Skelton has worked with Spokane doctors to end field burning in Spokane County to protect public health, has pushed to retrofit school buses to improve emissions and has helped other local officials enact successful strategies to clean up Spokane’s air, said Grant Pfeifer, who directs the Washington Department of Ecology’s regional air programs.

Those efforts, plus street paving projects and cleaner-burning cars, are directly responsible for Spokane getting off the federal dirty air list, Pfeifer added. “Eric led his agency through this process. He’s super-knowledgeable,” he said.

The current debate over SCAPCA’s future is an about-face from the early 1990s, when the late county Commissioner Pat Mummey, a Democrat, pushed for a more assertive board and demoted SCAPCA director Fred Gray for being too lax on polluters.

At the time, the board wanted someone to push for a countywide oxygenated gas program to reduce carbon monoxide; plan strategies to woo people out of cars and into buses; and curb dust and smoke pollution, including smoke from field burning.

The reason: 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 in the Sacramento, Calif., air agency, was the top choice in a national search. He used a mix of techniques, from fines and inspections to a complex pollution-trading system for grass growers, to clear the air.

But in a Spokane political climate hostile to regulators, Skelton’s job has been tough.

In 1995, area bluegrass growers fought his efforts to cut the days they could torch their fields. Skelton also clashed with the city over burning tires and pesticide containers in the trash incinerator. He got caught in a fight between angry Colbert neighbors and the city over odors at a compost plant near their homes.

Harris, whose political campaigns have been partially funded by grass growers, and former Republican county Commissioner Steve Hasson were highly critical of Skelton in the mid-1990s. However, Jan Monaco, executive director of the Spokane County Medical Society, was also on the board and supported him for trying to protect people from pollution, including field burning.

If SCAPCA were abolished, the state Ecology department would take over air quality regulation in Spokane County. That has happened in several Eastern Washington counties, including Grant, Douglas, Walla Walla and Franklin, Ecology’s Pfeifer said.

Abolishing SCAPCA would be ill-advised because state budgets are stretched thin, Thorburn said. “Given the environmental conditions of Spokane, we need that level of protection if we are going to ensure clean and safe air,” she said.


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