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New air quality chief starts under a cloud

Tue., June 20, 2006, midnight

Spokane County’s new air quality regulator is unconvinced that pollution is causing global warming, a position that concerns some environmental activists and one of the agency’s board members.

“There is some scientific disagreement about that, and I’m not sure we are large enough to inject ourselves in the argument,” said Bill Dameworth, who was introduced Monday as the new director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.

SCAPCA board member Jeff Corkill said global warming did not come up in job interviews but should be a concern of the agency’s leader.

“If he has a science background, it’s a bit concerning,” said Corkill, an Eastern Washington University chemistry professor who has studied air pollution. “Even the textbooks are not questioning (pollution’s link to global warming) anymore. The argument is not about whether it’s real or not but how to deal with the consequences.”

Dameworth, 59, was selected by the agency’s board without a vote. Board members said the decision was made by consensus in a private meeting earlier this month. Dameworth accepted the job last week.

SCAPCA board director Matthew Pederson said he does not believe SCAPCA violated the state’s open meeting law because the board never voted behind closed doors. He added that he went over the process and asked Dameworth if he would accept the job at a public meeting Monday.

The director’s position became open last summer when Eric Skelton resigned, saying the board had pressured him to ease up on polluters. Board members said they wanted SCAPCA to be more consistent in how it regulated companies.

Dameworth worked as the environmental manager for the Oregon timber company, Pope & Talbot, for 11 years until July. Before that, he held the same position for Potlatch Forest Products Corp. in Lewiston for 13 years.

Dameworth previously was an engineer for the Idaho Air Quality Bureau for three years and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors air in the Los Angeles area, for about seven years.

Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said one of the important factors in Dameworth’s hiring was his work in Los Angeles, which came at a time when that area had severe pollution problems.

“He’s got experience on both sides,” said Mielke, who serves on the SCAPCA board. “One of the things that we needed was someone with outside perspective.”

Mielke said Dameworth’s stance on global warming is not important in the operation of the agency or in the enforcement of air pollution rules.

“We don’t have enough resources to take on national or world issues,” Mielke said.

Potlach was Idaho’s top air polluter for much of the early 1990s, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports. A Pope & Talbot mill in Halsey, Ore., was among Oregon’s top five air polluters in 2004, an EPA report says.

Dameworth said his job in industry was to get the companies compliant with air laws and, in doing so, he helped to improve air quality. He said he “managed to irritate” his employers a few times as he pushed to operate more cleanly.

“We need to make sure we get along with the regulated community but still make sure they’re in compliance,” Dameworth said. “I don’t expect to be handing out waivers or freebies to anybody.”

Environmental advocates said the public should be cautious in judging an air quality leader from industry.

“When someone from the regulated industry becomes a regulator, you should just be very mindful that this person is coming at it from a different perspective,” said Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League.

Global warming became an issue at the air quality agency earlier this year when the interim director, Ron Edgar, asked the board if he should send a letter to Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession requesting that the city join 200 other local governments that agreed to help reduce global warming. Jeff Corkill was the only board member who supported sending the letter.

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