From the December 4, 2009 Issue of the Dan Diego Union-Tribune
Time to clear the air and breathe
By Ron Roberts
Friday, December 4, 2009 at midnight
Breathe. For most of us, the air in our cities is the cleanest in our lifetimes. As a 15-year member of both the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, I am proud of that fact and equally passionate about further improvement. But a pending state regulation to reduce diesel engine emissions carries an unpleasant odor, tainted by a falsified credential and information held secretly by staff and board members.
Next week, I will join my colleague Dr. John Telles in asking our fellow CARB members to suspend this “truck rule” regulation. Personally, this is an excruciating decision. Particulate pollution from large diesel engines causes annually thousands of premature deaths and cases of asthma, which I have.
Yet with these rules we are committing the owners of California-based commercial trucks and buses to $4.5 billion in upgrades between 2010 and 2030. Imposing such expensive and groundbreaking regulation requires securing the full faith and confidence of the public. Unfortunately, actions by air board members and staff have shaken that trust.
The process began several years ago with efforts to further reduce diesel pollution. Much of the justification came from a report titled “Methodology for Estimating Premature Death Associated with Long-Term Exposure to Fine Airborne Particulate Matter in California.”
Overseeing this report was Hien Tran, a longtime CARB staff member who claimed to have a doctorate in statistics from the University of California Davis. He did not, a fact known only to a few board members and staff, and not properly disclosed. Had the full board been informed, we could have delayed the public hearing process until corrective actions were taken.
In uncovering how this deception unfolded, Telles has collected an array of documents that shed new light on the selectively shared information. As Telles wrote in a letter to the agency’s attorney: “If staff and the chair can choose what information it gives or does not give to the board, information that could influence how the board might vote, then what purpose does the board have?”
In CARB’s own internal disciplinary communication with Tran, it worries about the results, writing, “Your dishonesty regarding your education has called into question the validity of the report. This report in turn supports other controversial and critical regulations adopted by Air Resources Board.”
I gain little comfort knowing Tran was suspended 60 days and demoted – a light penalty.
Satisfied with the punishment, CARB staff views the issue as closed. Since the allegation of falsified credentials was included in a letter submitted to the board, all disclosure requirements were met, they contend. Yet this is the first time in my 15 years on the board that I have seen anything less than full disclosure.
This new information was not just a rehash of opponents’ comments. Rather it was fresh material actively being vetted by top CARB staff in the hours leading to the vote. When Tran confessed two days before the Dec. 12, 2008 meeting that his doctorate was bought online for $1,000, six executive level staff members and a few board members were told. Days earlier, three board members were alerted to the falsification by a UCLA professor.
As the post-vote months passed, word of the deception began to leak. A few journalists, including the Union-Tribune’s Chris Reed, homed in on the truth. Finally, at the Sept. 24 meeting in Diamond Bar, staff confirmed in public Tran’s transgression.
Today, air board staff defend the Tran report as one subsequently validated by “rigorous internal as well as external review.” Therefore, no need to revisit the vote, they say. Some board members have gone so far as to declare, “There was no abuse, manipulation or dishonesty of any type.”
Well, that is simply not accurate. The investigative work of Telles shows the opposite is true. This withholding of information violates an important trust and is as serious as the original fabrication of credentials.
Telles is a passionate supporter of clean air and hails from Fresno, an area severely impacted by diesel exhaust. We both badly want cleaner diesel emissions and believe a new public hearing process will validate most of the earlier results. For now, however, the rule set to take effect in 2010 must be suspended.
California maintains the most effective air board not just in our country, but in the world, by earning the public’s trust and confidence. It is essential for our long-term reputation that we never lose sight of this truth. We need to clear the air of this controversy.
Roberts represents the Fourth District on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.