By HOWARD FINE
After years of relative leniency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is cracking down on small businesses resulting in a sharp hike in the number of citations and growing complaints by business owners.
The AQMD issued 1,267 citations last year, up from 781 in 1996. Moreover, agency inspectors wrote 1,093 citations in just the first five months of 1998, putting the AQMD on pace to double its 1997 level, records show.
Los Angeles-area businesses also paid out $2.9 million in penalties in 1997, double the $1.45 million paid in 1996 and more than any year since 1993. In the first five months of this year, businesses paid $1.1 million in penalties, almost double the amount for the like period of 1997.
Agency officials say the numbers reflect escalating pressure being placed on small businesses to clean up pollution.
“We are changing the way we regulate small businesses,” said Jack Broadbent, deputy executive officer in charge of stationary source compliance for the AQMD.
“After our staff cutbacks in the early 1990s, we focused more on the major polluters in an effort to get the biggest bang for the buck. Now we are taking more of a targeting approach, where we target a particular industry for a particular length of time, looking at every facility, large or small,” he said.
The first industry to feel the brunt of this new get-tough approach has been gasoline stations.
Starting last year, AQMD inspectors began visiting every service station within the district, which encompasses Los Angeles, Orange and the western portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
“We have found a very high rate of non-compliance among service stations, upwards of 80 percent,” said Carol Koy, deputy executive officer in charge of major stationary source compliance. About 75 percent of all the pollution citations issued in the last year have been issued to gas station operators, she said.
Koy said the stations had been required to set up self-inspection programs, where operators would have to check nozzles and hoses every day for possible leaks of fumes.
“When we started inspecting these stations, we found that these self-inspection programs were clearly not working. Many owners were not bothering to replace degrading equipment,” she said.
Even when the nozzles were replaced, the new nozzles were defective, a fault Koy said was due to problems in the manufacturing process and not service station owners.
Jan Speelman, executive director of the Automotive Trade Organizations of California, which represents 500 independent service station owners and operators throughout the L.A. area, said his group has “no objection to them fining and citing someone deliberately violating the law.
“But even when the operators have done their daily checks and done their best to comply, they are still getting these citations,” Speelman said. “All it takes is one customer to drop a nozzle or pull too hard on the hose and you can get a hole. Then the AQMD inspector comes by and immediately issues a citation because emissions are escaping through that hole. No effort is made to give the station operator time to fix the problem.”
Complaints are also coming from other businesses, especially in the spray-painting and coatings industries.
“The district is now going after people on ticky-tacky things,” said Ed Laird, president of Huntington Beach-based Coatings Resource Corp. and chairman of the Small Business Coalition, a group of about 2,000 local companies that have banded together to lobby on AQMD issues.
But the AQMD’s get-tough approach has been welcomed by environmental groups, which say the agency has for too long given polluters a free ride.
“I find (the crackdown) hard to believe after all we’ve seen about the district being lax on enforcement, but if it’s true, it’s very good news,” said Gail Ruderman-Feuer, an attorney with the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It means they are finally getting back on track.”
The crackdown actually started before last summer’s ouster of then-Executive Officer James Lents. Ironically, many small business owners had campaigned successfully for his removal, saying he was too tough on business.
Instead of easing up, the crackdown has intensified since Lents left.
The current get-tough approach is a stark contrast from the early 1990s, when AQMD revenues plummeted during the recession and the agency’s 12-member board reacted to criticism that the agency’s regulations were forcing businesses to flee the region.
But as the economy improved, criticism came the other way from both environmentalists and federal regulators who say the agency had been too lax on business.
Laird said the AQMD let up on enforcement in the mid-’90s when the agency came under increasing fire from Republicans in the state Legislature. Now, he said, the district is facing pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on business and Republican clout in the Legislature has diminished.
“The district used to hand out fix-it tickets, giving companies a chance to get into compliance,” Laird said. “That’s not happening anymore. Now they are handing out violation notices. It’s as if they are trying to get their numbers up to please the U.S. EPA.”
One company that had previously received fix-it tickets notices of violation, without the weight of a penalty but recently got hit with a citation is Whittier-based Compliance Spray Painting, a small spray-paint shop with 45 employees and less than $2 million in annual sales.
Otho McNabb, the company’s president, said that in May an AQMD inspector issued a citation for exceeding emissions limits. He is still waiting to meet with AQMD officials to find out how much he will be assessed in penalties.
“The rule changed on Jan. 1, but we were not aware of it,” McNabb said. “In the past, the inspector would have given us 30 days or something to get the problem under control. Now, it’s cut and dry: If you are in violation, you get a citation. There’s no allowance for mitigating circumstances. It’s really hard on small firms like ours.”
AQMD officials denied that the increase in citations is in response to EPA charges that the agency has been lax in implementing clean-air laws. Rather, they say the agency has begun to implement a provision of the federal Clean Air Act of 1990 that requires many previously unregulated businesses to get federal permits.
AQMD Board Member Mee Hae Lee, formerly vice president for government affairs for Warner Bros., acknowledged that many small businesses had escaped frequent inspections after the layoffs of inspectors in the early 1990s, and that an effort is now being made to step up inspections.
“Because we did not inspect small businesses as frequently, we were accused of being way too lax on small businesses,” Lee said. “This was especially the case with service stations, which were supposed to be doing their own self-inspections.”
Lee added that the stepped-up enforcement is being balanced by other programs to assist small businesses in complying with AQMD regulations. These include providing technical assistance for pollution control and information on less-polluting solvents and sprays.
“We have made an enormous commitment to keeping small businesses in business,” Lee said.