New air board member won't be present

The latest member of the state Air Resources Board, a low-key cardiologist from Fresno, won't be at today's board meeting to vote on a much-debated plan to reduce tiny particulate matter in the Valley's air.

But his influence will be felt all the same.

John Telles, recently appointed by the governor to serve on both the state board and the Valley's regional air-quality board, opposed the plan when it came before the local panel last month.

He joined Fresno City Council Member Henry T. Perea and Arvin Council Member Raji Brar in saying it was not aggressive enough. While the board approved the plan 8-3, longtime observers of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said the number of dissenting votes signaled a significant shift in the board's attitude.

Telles, who was attending his first meeting of the local board, asked district staff pointed questions while thumbing through his obviously well-studied packet of information regarding regulations aimed at reducing PM-2.5 -- specks of debris so small that 30 of them could fit across the width of a human hair. They can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, triggering asthma attacks and heart problems. They are known to cause early death.

Today in Fresno, the state air board will vote on the same plan. But Telles will be on the East Coast attending his son's graduation -- a conflict he told the Governor's Office about when he was appointed.

"My air board obligations are of the highest priority. I will not be attending the upcoming meeting in Fresno only because of something of even higher priority -- family," he e-mailed The Bee.

No 'rubber stamp process'

But even with the absence of Telles -- who represents the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District on the state board -- there likely will be questions exploring whether the air-cleaning plan goes as far as it could.

"This isn't a rubber-stamp process," said Leo Kay, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. "No one is going to blame Dr. Telles for going to his kid's graduation. But it did happen to fall on a critical day for the San Joaquin Valley. Other board members are very aware of the heightened interest in the Valley about air quality. I expect they will ask questions he might have asked."

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state board, said she is well informed of Telles' opposition to passing the plan as-is.

"We know what he said, and we're going to be asking tough questions and listening to the public," she said.

"The plan meets tough legal requirements," Nichols said. "But, if there's a way to . . . make it tougher, we're going to be looking for ways to do that."

Point of agreement

Valley politics in something as complex as air pollution are not easily summed up. The one thing most agree on: The air is unhealthy.

On one end of the spectrum are environmentalists who believe the air can and must be cleaned up. They believe the health effects have reached a crisis point and that it's time for sweeping change and strong regulations.

"It's a question of who pays for the bad air. Is it the children and the old people who can't breathe? Do we pay through medical bills and quality of life, or do we start holding industry accountable?" asks Kathryn Phillips, manager of the Environmental Defense's Clean Air for Life campaign.

On the other side are those who say regulations already have helped improve air quality. They say oil, farming and other industries are expected to pay more than $20 billion over the next six years for new equipment and technologies.

They say the changes activists want made to the proposed plan -- such as no-farm days, converting diesel-fired irrigation pumps to electricity and early implementation of smog controls on trucks and farm equipment -- would cost farmers and others millions of dollars and result in negligible air improvement.

An attack on agriculture?

"An attack on the plan is an attack on agriculture," said Roger Isom, spokesman for the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association.

"One big frustration is the idea that the ag community doesn't care about air quality. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Isom, who once worked for the air district. "But we're never going to get there in the time frame the environmentalists want. We aren't going to be able to breathe and we're not going to have jobs, if they get the things they want."

Traditionally, the Valley's air board has been sensitive to agricultural concerns.

Environmentalists complained for years that they were steamrolled at regional air board meetings. They said clean-air regulations were dead on arrival due to the influence of development, oil and agriculture on a board comprised of elected county supervisors.

Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case, who sits on the regional board and once held Telles' seat on the state board, said supervisors represent voters and were always looking for the right balance.

"It's a matter of degrees. How fast can we get, not just cleaner air -- but healthful air -- without harming our economy?" she said.

Hoping to break the power bloc of supervisors, activists lobbied successfully to expand the regional board by four positions, from 11 to 15, with two medical experts appointed by the governor -- the latter being a key goal of public health advocates. Telles is the first appointee.

After the state Senate rejected Case during the confirmation process for the state board, Gov. Schwarzenegger asked Telles also to fill that role.

A former president of the Fresno Madera Medical Society, Telles had spoken before to the regional air board on the health costs of dirty air. But he also grew up on a west-side farm, which some believed would make him familiar with ag issues.

Board-watchers say he was not a political animal and not the first choice of either environmentalists or industry interests. He was an unknown quantity at his first regional meeting.

Brent Newell, a lawyer with the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, a group that lobbied to create the new regional board positions, was floored by Telles' performance.

"I've been going to these meetings since 2001, and I had never seen anything like it. He challenged staff and asked specific questions fleshing out the plan. It felt really unusual.

"I'm sure those who represent the interests of oil, ag and development still feel a great deal of comfort about their position with the board. But there was a distinct shift at that meeting. Now, there are other strong voices that are going to be heard."

Isom, the cotton growers' representative, was bothered by some of Telles' questions.

In a report on his organization's Web site titled "Environmentalists Attack Agriculture at PM-2.5 Hearing," Isom wrote: "Dr. Telles, who was raised on a westside farm, even questioned the district on why mandatory electrification of ag pumps" was not feasible, as farmers contend.

State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who led the opposition to Case's confirmation to the state board and sits on the legislative committee that will decide whether to confirm Telles' appointment to the state air board, was dismayed to learn that the cardiologist won't be at today's meeting.

Said Florez: "I think Dr. Telles, as a dissenter, as someone who opposed the district's plan and found it inadequate, can provide great insight. It's disappointing, to say the least, that he isn't able to participate."