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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Balance needed in clean-air efforts

The Spokesman-Review

It is a shame that a long-sought environmental victory in Spokane County was clouded by a political dust-up involving regulators, their board of directors and some businessmen.

Before addressing the spat, it’s important to take time to celebrate the significance of the clean-air successes in Spokane, which was the second-to-last city in the state to escape the federal government’s nonattainment list for carbon monoxide and particulates. The city had been in noncompliance with the Clean Air Act for decades.

This was a long, difficult struggle with many catalysts for success. Auto emissions have improved. Grass-field burning in the county has ceased. Wood stoves are cleaner. Businesses have retrofitted plants to cut down on emissions.

And a key turning point came when the county hired Eric Skelton as director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority in the early 1990s. Before then, enforcement of pollution standards was too lax.

Spokane’s bowl-like setting traps pollution close to the ground, which poses particular challenges and a greater health hazard. Skelton immediately launched a number of initiatives aimed at reducing pollution and increasing enforcement. The business community dug in at first but soon got on board when it realized that quality of life could become the region’s biggest selling point.

“Near Nature. Near Perfect” wouldn’t have quite the same appeal if the feds had kept the city on their dirty-air list.

As with all regulations, there are real costs and nagging paperwork. And as with all regulatory bodies and those who are regulated, there are personality clashes and legitimate complaints. One would hope those could be sorted out in a professional manner, but that’s not what has happened recently.

A couple of businesses have accused Skelton and his agency of heavy-handedness and document-doctoring. Two SCAPCA board members, Spokane County Commissioners Todd Mielke and Phil Harris, helped spring those allegations on Skelton in a public setting without getting both sides of the story.

If the allegations have merit, they should be pursued. Clean-air victories do not give regulators carte blanche to act with impunity. However, it doesn’t speak well of the system that board members and staff cannot discuss matters without turning them into public bloodlettings. Moreover, those calling for the dismantling of SCAPCA are overreacting and demonstrating a lack of appreciation for the progress made thus far.

The big picture should remain a common-sense balance between the health of Spokane County’s residents and economic vitality as the area addresses clean-air challenges. Grudges should fade to the background.

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