October 30, 1997 - From the October, 1997 issue

Mary Nichols: Exiting EPA for Environment Now & Los Angeles

Mary Nichols, former federal EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, is returning to L.A. to head up Environment Now, a regional environmental advocacy organization. Nichols spoke with TPR about her work at EPA and the tasks ahead in her new position.


“It simply had to be changed… move forward and make the air cleaner, but let’s not stand on technicalities if they are not really important."

Mary, you have now left your job at the U.S. EPA and returned once again to Los Angeles. Share with us the legacy that you leave behind in Washington and what you believe is going to become of it in the balance of the Clinton administration. 

I'd like to think I left the office at the EPA in better shape than I found it. When I got there in 1993, we were just starting to implement the Bush administration's 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. Thousands of state, industry and EPA actions that were mandated by the law were only just beginning to come due. And many states began resisting provisions they had enthusiastically supported when the law was going through Congress. 

The most telling example for California is the inspection and maintenance program. The 1990 amendments called for states with serious air quality problems to upgrade their programs. The law mandated there be state-run or contractor-run centralized systems that separated testing and repair, and that dynamometers be used for the testing. There was also a focus on cleaning up past abuses that arose when private companies could do both repair and testing. 

After the law passed, state air agencies and other groups started urging legislatures to change their programs under the threat that if they didn’t do it, they would lose their highway funds and be sanctioned by EPA.

But the legislators discovered that thousands of small businesses would lose out on the lucrative testing business. And with no overwhelming popular demand for a more expensive process that more motorists were going to fail, they simply refused to do it. 

California was one of the first states to say, we want to do something different. And it looked as though EPA and the states were on a collision course. In response to earlier states' requests, EPA had adopted extremely prescriptive regulations—down to the level that stations couldn't sell windshield wipers or Coke, but they could sell potato chips. It simply had to be changed. We clearly didn't have an ironclad argument that emissions would be saved by not allowing testing stations to sell Coke.

So the basis for pure centralized programs began to disappear. We had to come up with a performance-based system for evaluating alternative state programs and allowing states more leeway to experiment. This was a big blow to some in the environmental community. But the existing system simply wasn't sustainable from a political or a technical perspective. EPA had to move forward without being so prescriptive.

In many ways, that change in the implementation of the law was a hallmark of the way I earned out my responsibilities at EPA—move forward and make the air cleaner, but let's not stand on technicalities if they are not really important.

One of the EPA's most controversial actions of late is the tightening of standards for ozone and fine particulate air pollution. You said in a December interview with MIR that you believed that there was a tremendous level of consensus in the Los Angeles community about the need to achieve clean and healthy air. Do you still believe there is that consensus? How important to L.A. are the recent proposals for tightening the air standards?

The proposals to tighten standards on fine particulates are important to everyone in America, particularly in Los Angeles. The EPA did what law and good policy required: EPA reviewed the scientific basis for the standards and incorporated more of what we now know about the health effects of lower levels of ozone and particulates. 

Evidence has been building over the last decade about the effects of ozone on children's lungs. And we were establishing new standards for particulate matter (smaller than 25 microns), which had never been regulated before. We need to refocus our control efforts on the particles we know to be the most damaging to health—those that cause premature death in elderly people and those with underlying heart and lung ailments. 

Both the ozone and fine particulate standards are going to be the most important policies in guiding our pollution control efforts over the next decade or so. They form the context in which the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the State Air Board and EPA do their work. And they provide the basis for judging the effectiveness of our programs. 

All of the polling I've seen indicates that people want the government to take whatever actions are necessary to protect their health, including enforcing stricter air standards. The only disconnect is that many people—perhaps the majority—still believe that most air pollution is attributable to the largest industrial sources, and they're not doing their share of cleanup. As a result, developing effective policies has been very difficult in California, in particular. It was hard when I was running the State air program, and it still is hard 

In the August edition of TPR, MIR's sister publication, former L.A. City Councilman Marvin Braude talked about the South Coast AQMD, an agency he helped create. He said, ''From the very beginning of the District there was a strong effort on the part of some, primarily from the business community, to destroy it. There is a coalition saying most people don't believe in government at all, and that they shouldn't regulate anything." Given both popular distrust of big government and California's recovering economy, how do you sell the sorts of environmental controls that both SCAQMD and EPA are now advocating? 

First of all, there is a difference between accepting the need for good regulation and agreeing about how it is to be done. The SCAQMD deserves tremendous credit for its innovative approaches to these needs over the years, dating back to the invention of the marketable emissions permit program for nitrogen oxides. Other AQMD programs, too, have helped foster the development and deployment of new technologies—fuel cells, for example.

That is the direction things are going to take in the future. It won't be possible to effectively regulate every type of pollution with the same tools. But if we can't find ways to substitute less polluting solvents and coatings, find ways to use fuels more efficiently or to transport ourselves more efficiently, we're going to face environmental problems above and beyond air pollution as this basin continues to grow. In many ways air is at the cutting edge, ahead of a wave of concern. 

It's important to remember, however, that our solutions to these problems can and should benefit our region not only environmentally but economically and socially, as well. 

Many have suggested that SCAQMD's turmoil is attributable to the fact that it's a regional agency in a region that doesn't perceive itself as a region. Could you comment on the political environment in this basin in which air quality goals are set and enforced? 

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AQMD is unique in many ways. It was really imposed on this region by the State; it isn't the result of a ground swell of demand from county or city officials to be part of a regional agency. Rather, it was the environmentalists and the business community that pushed for its creation in the first place. There was a recognition both by citizen activists and the regulated community that a region-wide approach to dealing with air pollution sources offered many strong advantages. 

After its many years in existence, the fundamental logic behind the SCAQMD is now being reexamined. It's possible to construct better ways to govern the District. But the idea of having a contiguous region with coherent emissions patterns—and bringing in the people who are causing and being affected by each other’s problems—is still as valid as it was when the District was first created. 

Could you also comment, Mary, on an apparent sea change in the leadership of the SCAQMD since Jim Lents was forced out. What should our readers be concerned about? 

Having just vacated an important air policy position myself, I have a strong vested interest in saying that these issues aren't dependent on the individuals in these positions. Any individual can make a tremendous difference, and leadership is critical. But, if institutions are well organized, they can survive the departure of any one leader.

I'm sure that that's true of the SCAQMD. I don't know the thinking of the Board Members who voted not to renew Jim Lents' contract. I do know that Jim Lents is known internationally as a tremendous leader, particularly in technology innovation for pollution control. I sincerely hope that this part of the SCAQMD's legacy will not be lost as a result of his departure. 

Let's now move on to your new position in Los Angeles. Tell us about Environment Now and what you hope to accomplish there. 

Environment Now is a private operating foundation that was created by the late Frank Wells, past President of the Walt Disney Company. In addition to being a successful businessman and public-spirited person, Frank Wells was an ardent environmentalist. He was an outdoorsman and mountain climber, and cared tremendously about the natural environment of Southern California. 

In 1989 he set up a foundation of his own to work on environmental projects. When he was killed in an accident in 1994, the family, after a period of mourning and reassessing, decided that they wanted to recruit an outside person with an environmental background to come in and run the foundation, and to help create a program for it. That's my job. 

My hope for this foundation is to demonstrate that a small foundation, by making strategic grants and starting projects that work in conjunction with others, can really make a difference to many key environmental issues in Southern California. 

Environment Now already has a track record. They founded the Santa Monica and San Diego Baykeeper Programs, which have demonstrated the value of having a steward to ensure compliance with the law in any one particular vulnerable area. They were also responsible for litigation that has successfully helped protect old growth forests, particularly the Sequoia National Forest. 

Environment Now is also devising a unique program to bring home the concept of debt for nature. We are trying to force the people who bought the Headwaters forest with junk bonds to give back some of the trees they want to log, as payment for the taxpayer savings and loan bailout necessitated by the company's abuses.

So we have a good track record of support for activist and legal solutions to problems, but also a very strong identification with the natural resources that people care about.

It's also rumored that Environment Now, in the tradition of Frank Wells, wants to tap into the youthful idealism of high school students for the environment. Is that true?

We absolutely have an obligation to recruit the next generation of environmental activists. That happened when Frank Wells' son, Kevin, became president of the foundation's Board. It will happen throughout the community as environmental activists like me grow older.

We need to find people not only who can carry on the work, but who can come up with new ideas and bring their energy to the cause. One hallmark of Environment Now's work has been a commitment to make sure the grants that they give produce measurable results—not necessarily in specific terms like grams of pollution spared the Bay, but at least in terms of defining project goals and accomplishments. We would be very pleased if we can come up with an educational program that meets that objective.

Our approach has been, and will continue to be, to be involved in developing projects, not just waiting for people to bring us grants, although, obviously, the best ideas are not necessarily generated in-house. Hopefully we'll be able to help shape the projects we find.

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