Staff Reporter

Barry Wallerstein, the newly appointed executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, says he wants to speed up the agency's permit approval process and continue cracking down on violators.

"We are making every effort to speed up permits," he said in an interview with the Business Journal. "For example, companies with generic equipment, like small generators, should be able to receive a standard permit very quickly and not have to wait weeks or months."

The AQMD currently receives between 10,000 and 12,000 permit applications a year, an increase of 20 percent to 30 percent from five years ago, during the recession. To handle the increase, Wallerstein has reassigned a dozen staff members to the permit section. He also has appointed an ombudsman to help make the process more efficient.

Speeding up permitting, he said, will save the agency thousands of dollars a year, which will help meet another goal: balancing the agency's $92 million annual budget. Currently, he said, the AQMD is drawing down its reserves to offset operating budget deficits.

Wallerstein had been the smog-control agency's interim executive officer since James Lents was forced from the post in August 1997. He was named to the permanent post on Nov. 13 by the AQMD's governing board. The 45-year-old Wallerstein has been with the AQMD since 1984.

Like his predecessor, Wallerstein must contend with a board that remains deeply divided. Several board members, particularly from the Inland Empire and minority communities, want the AQMD to crack down harder on pollution, while others favor a slower approach. Meanwhile, the entire board faces intense pressure from environmental groups, which accuse the agency of backing away from its mission to clean the air, and from businesses, which oppose stringent new rules.

Wallerstein's plans have been greeted with skepticism by a coalition of small-business owners who have complained bitterly about the length of time it takes to get permits.

"It will be business as usual," said Ed Laird, owner of Huntington Beach-based Coatings Resource Corp. and head of the 2,000-member Small Business Coalition. "The last administration tried very hard to speed up permit processing with many of these same steps. They didn't get very far."

On the enforcement side, Wallerstein said he also plans to keep up the pressure on companies that violate AQMD emission rules. Over the last year, he has added about a dozen inspectors, many of whom have been assigned to inspect gas stations.

"We went to a voluntary compliance program for service stations, and it clearly hasn't worked," Wallerstein said. "We found a very high non-compliance rate."

Environmental groups have charged that the agency has been too lax in its enforcement of rules. "If you don't go out and check these facilities, they will break the rules," said Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air.

Meanwhile Wallerstein's enforcement efforts have met with opposition from the Small Business Coalition. "This is really an attempt to generate more income by levying more fines," Laird said.

As for new air pollution control rules, Wallerstein said the agency's focus will be on reducing emissions of coatings and solvents, especially in spray-paint booths.

He also plans to continue setting up emission credit trading programs, under which companies that clean up their emissions beyond the required level can sell credits to companies that can't meet their standards.

These programs have come under fire from environmental groups that claim the program allows some companies to emit more pollutants into their immediate neighborhoods than federal and state law allows.

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