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Lord of the Race 

Serving on two powerful air-quality boards., L.A. Marathon founder William Burke sets a fast pace. But it just might be when he crosses the finish line, the public — and clean air — are the big losers.

Thursday, Mar 4 2004
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Illustration by Jack Black

After years of improvements, the air in Los Angeles has started getting dirtier. The decline can be traced to decisions like the one William A. Burke faced in 1994 in his first major test as a new member of the regional air watchdog agency. Environmentalists packed the auditorium of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, ready to fight — even charge the dais, if necessary — all for the cause of cleaning up toxic pollution from factories around the Los Angeles area estimated to cause 10,000 people to get cancer.

They hoped they finally had their man, a champion of environmental justice, at the helm of their crusade to rid impoverished areas of more than their fair share of foul air. Burke had already made a name for himself as the founder of the L.A. Marathon and wielded power, behind the scenes, over city affairs as one of the city’s most influential African-American power brokers. In September of 1993 he had been appointed to the board by then–Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and finally his moment to prove his value had arrived.

On this relatively clear winter day, a boisterous crowd of workers, parents and students from Wilmington, a community surrounded by oil refineries, and residents from other urban industrial zones waved signs and marched outside. They could smell their victory over the business forces assembled in the room, which opposed as bad for capitalism any significant reduction in emissions of benzene, chromium and other deadly pollutants. The environmental-justice crowd knew the district’s own studies blamed the stew of toxics for causing disproportionately high levels of cancer in their neighborhoods.

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Bill Burke surprised them. He cited the cost of the rules to business and joined the free-market capitalists, deserting his following. He backed a hollow alternative that required little, if any action, by most factories for years to come. Labor Community Strategies Center organizer Chris Mathis, an African-American who had brought scores of people to the hearing, marched to the front of the room and confronted Burke. “You’re no brother,” he yelled. Burke lurched over the dais at him, shouting back, “Fuck you.” Sheriff’s deputies rushed in and cleared the hall, and the meeting came to a sudden close.

Burke caved that day, and he has been caving ever since. His critics question whether Burke can separate his own interests as the marathon man from the interests of the public, whom he serves not only on the regional board, but as L.A.’s representative on the California Air Resources Board, which sets statewide policy. In fact, the tentative sponsor of the first marathon, General Motors, got a big break from the state board in 2001 when demand for development of electric cars stalled out. Burke played a major role in dismantling the program, likely defeating hopes of returning L.A.’s air to a healthful state for at least another generation.

Burke’s actions on air pollution raise the fundamental question of how somebody with so many economic supporters that generate pollution — ranging from the city of Los Angeles and automakers to airlines and energy companies that sponsor his marathon — can be an impartial environmental regulator on behalf of the public. A review of thousands of pages of public documents in Los Angeles, Diamond Bar, Sacramento and San Francisco — including those obtained through nine requests from various agencies under the California Public Records Act — casts severe doubt on his ability to do so as both chair of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and as the Los Angeles area’s representative on the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

“I don’t think there’s a conflict,” insists Burke. “What you’re really saying is I shouldn’t serve.”

Records show that under his tenure as chairman of the AQMD and as a member of the state Air Resources Board, air pollution in greater Los Angeles has worsened and is slipping back to where it was 10 years ago, when pollution reached unhealthful levels one out of three days. The consequences — thousands of deaths and illnesses — are as serious as crime in Southern California, though they garner little media attention. (Full disclosure: For 13 years, I was the press spokesman for the AQMD. I resigned in 2001, dismayed by the creeping corporate influence that threatened progress in the war on air pollution.)

Under Burke, the AQMD has treaded lightly on the city of Los Angeles, which operates some of the most polluting facilities in the region, including the sprawling port, the region’s major airports, as well as major power plants. Moreover, the records show that Burke worked behind the scenes at the CARB to relieve regulatory pressure on automakers to clean up motor vehicles, the number-one cause of air pollution in California. Despite his professed concern for environmental justice, he intervened on behalf of the Rev. Pat Robertson, who was attempting to open a closed-down oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs, a largely working-class Latino community in polluted and industrialized southeast Los Angeles County. Around the same time, Burke also helped Robertson take over an African gold-mining concession for a piece of the action.

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