Lois Henry

Wednesday, Dec 09 2009 09:53 PM

Air board to revisit rule after controversy

By Lois Henry

SACRAMENTO -- So after many months and much public berating (at least by me and one other lonely journalist in San Diego), the California Air Resources Board voted Wednesday night to redo a report by a researcher who lied about his credentials and used shoddy methods to justify creation of stringent diesel emission rules that could all but cripple the trucking industry.

They did not, however, suspend the so-called "truck rule" while the report by CARB researcher Hien Tran is redone. I and board member Dr. John Telles, who made the motion to do just that, felt suspending the rule would have told the public -- and especially the business owners whose trust they absolutely must have -- that the board was interested in governing in an honest, transparent manner.

Instead, after hearing more than 70 speakers talk about how their businesses have been devastated in the last few years, the board opted to have staff review options for how to implement the rule considering the terrible economic conditions and bring that report back in April for a full regulatory hearing.

In the meantime, CARB just won't enforce the truck rule, which was set to go into effect in 2011.

Same result, but without the bold acknowledgement that CARB board members recognize they actually are public servants.

If you're keeping score that's:

* One yay for the board for finally realizing that their credibility was in the toilet and the least they could do was not flush it away entirely.

* One major eye roll for suspending the rule in a mealy-mouth way -- without officially suspending the rule.

* One reserved golf clap for directing staff to re-examine how the economy has reduced emissions already, whether the rule is reasonable considering credit constraints and whether the one-size-fits-all approach is workable considering the wide array of trucking operations among other issues.

Board Chair Mary Nichols also vowed to have a kind of "science fair" in February that will look at the information on PM2.5 and its medical effects. Many, many reports have been written on that issue and, she said, the literature clearly shows the fatal effects of exposure to PM2.5.

Even so, she allowed, that opposition scientists and "skeptics" would be welcome and "listened to."

That's great. But unless she's going to require authors of studies showing such deadly links to open their data for independent inspection -- as they have thus far refused to do -- I'm not sure us "deniers," as I've been called -- will think any differently.

As far as the Tran report goes, it's unclear exactly how and who will rework the report, which looked at the supposedly lethal effects of PM2.5, tiny bits of soot found in diesel exhaust. But it will not be done by CARB staff researchers, board member John Balmes assured me.

Balmes, like Nichols, had been apprised of Tran's fraud before the board voted on the truck rule last December. But he and Nichols and a number of senior CARB staffers kept that information from the full board, which infuriated Telles, a Fresno cardiologist who spent two months backtracking who knew what and when after he was reminded of Tran's fraud following the board's September meeting.

I had actually brought it to his attention at his Senate confirmation hearing. At the time, he asked Executive Officer James Goldstene about it and was told it was just a personnel issue.

At the September meeting, several members of the public mentioned Tran's indiscretion and, Telles said, "At the time I was pretty hot about it." But he set it on the back burner until yours truly called and bugged him about it again.

That started his quest for more information. And when he discovered that CARB staffers knew of Tran's fraud and apparently relayed it by e-mail to a select group of board members shortly before the vote and then kept it under wraps from the public, he was really torqued.

"I got that e-mail and I just couldn't sleep that night," he told me. "I'm a firm believer that the biggest issue for government is that you should do the right thing. And this (not informing the board and public of Tran's lies) was absolutely the wrong thing to do."

Well, there's right and wrong and then there's politics. As evidenced by Nichols, who up until her opening remarks at the meeting Wednesday seemed dead set on sticking to her obtuse position that the Tran report didn't matter and was an "annoying distraction," as she wrote to Telles in an e-mail.

I asked what changed her mind. She told me that once the press begins questioning government's credibility, as I and eventually others did, you've got to do something to restore it.

Or maybe she had a chat with the governor Tuesday, who, she conceded, made it clear he wanted to stick to the federal deadline of reducing NOx and PM2.5 emissions by 2014 (in other words, don't throw out the truck rule entirely). But the Tran issue wasn't going away without some kind of concessions, and he wanted her to make some.

Oh well, this IS politics after all.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at people.bakersfield.com/home/Blog/noholdsbarred, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com.

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