Las Vegas Sun

January 18, 2018

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County takes on air quality

Gov. Kenny Guinn has appointed the Clark County Commission as the sole air-quality agency for Southern Nevada, a move that significantly increases the responsibility the board has over land-use issues, transportation and industrial development in the region.

In a letter to the commission, Guinn designated it as the agency to have "regulatory, enforcement and permitting authority" for all air quality and pollution rules.

In effect, any large construction, transportation or new industrial projects -- anything producing significant amounts of pollution -- will have to receive a clean bill of health from the commissioners, even if the projects already have been approved by councils from Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City or Mesquite.

Observers from the county, the cities and independent agencies said the power transfer means the county commissioners will play a much greater role in guiding development in Southern Nevada. Guinn's office did not respond to additional questions.

The commissioners, directly and through policies, appointees and employees, will have the ability to fine polluters, set rules and grants waivers to those rules, as well as promote or discourage economic development. The commissioners will inherit an entire set of responsibilities now hoarded by the Clark County Health District.

The health board, a regional agency, has for a decade exercised the air-quality responsibilities that Guinn is shifting to the commissioners. But the health board is a different agency than is the commission.

County commissioners have had two seats among a dozen on the health board, while representatives from individual cities dominated the seats on the board.

Now, authority and responsibility for air-quality will be concentrated among the seven elected members of the County Commission, already one of the most powerful boards in the state.

Criticism was swift and heated from the city of Las Vegas.

Mayor Oscar Goodman called the move "outrageous."

He said the Regional Planning Coalition, a board of elected policymakers from across the county, "has been working diligently for 18 months" to plan a regional air quality agency.

"We've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers money, and with one swipe of the pen our say-so has been deleted," Goodman said.

He said the independence of Las Vegas and the other cities is threatened by Guinn's move.

"Now we're at the mercy of the county ... The taxpayers elected me and the council to take care of the people of Las Vegas, and here with one swipe of the pen our say-so has been deleted."

Goodman and Councilman Gary Reese, who also serves on the health board, said they will check out what options, if any, the city has in response to the move.

"I think this is a huge step to take without any dialogue," Reese said. "Nobody ever voted on this, nobody ever talked about this."

But Commission Chairman Dario Herrera said the change will be good for the county. The county's Comprehensive Planning Department has long made air-quality plans for the region, but the county didn't have the authority to carry out those plans.

"It certainly will affect the way we make comprehensive plans and affect the way we implement land-use decisions to improve air quality," Herrera said. "I think the governor's action implies that he feels the county is most qualified at making decisions relating to air quality."

About 90 employees of the health district who work on air quality issues will either go to work for the county -- or conceivably start looking for new jobs. One of those affected is Christine Robinson, director of the district's Air-Quality Division.

She said the governor's decision doesn't leave room for a challenge.

"The governor, under state law, is designating the county commissioners as the lead agency for air quality. Period," Robinson said.

Guinn has asked that the employees and physical assets of the health district's Air-Quality Division be transferred to the county by Aug. 7.

Robinson said enormous stakes of power and money are involved in the governor's decision.

"I believe that air quality will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, variable concerning growth in this community into the next century," she said.

Guinn's move ends more than a year of debate among a host of boards and committees regarding reforms of the structure of air-quality agencies in Clark County. City representatives had pushed for a new, regional agency, similar if not identical in structure to the health board.

Legislation was introduced this spring in Carson City to create a new air-quality agency that would incorporate the planning functions of the county together with the enforcement and regulatory authority of the health district's Air-Quality Division.

But after the Legislature failed to finance the new agency, Guinn vetoed the proposal to create it.

Guinn's decision comes as Southern Nevada is struggling to meet commitments made to the Environmental Protection Agency in plans to control pollution from fine dust and carbon monoxide. The region is in technical violation of the federal Clean Air Act for violations of the health standard for those pollutants.

The EPA is now judging the feasibility of those plans drafted by the county. As part of the process, the federal agency will have to judge the ability of the regional agencies -- especially Clark County -- to implement and enforce new air-quality rules designed to control air pollution.

If the plans to improve air quality aren't accepted by the EPA, federal sanctions -- which could mean the loss of hundreds of millions in annual federal dollars for roads, water projects and other infrastructure -- would come as soon as December 2002.

Elected policymakers and staff from the cities said they are still trying to understand the implications of the governor's decision.

"I can't tell you right now what the net effect is," agreed Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson. "My hope is that the job (to clean up the air) gets done."

Gibson and Henderson Councilwoman Amanda Cyphers, a health board member who had worked to create a regional board to govern a new air quality agency, said they believe that their city will still have representation in air pollution issues through the commission districts.

"They are accountable to all of us," Cyphers said.

Cyphers echoed other elected officials and city staffers by predicting that the county will seek input from the cities on issues affecting those municipalities.

"There has to be a natural concern when you've been sitting at the table for so many years," she said. "I hope that we will continue to have that opportunity to have that input."

Herrera and County Comprehensive Planning Director John Schlegel said the cities would have that opportunity.

"I think everybody realizes how important air-quality issues will be as the Las Vegas Valley continues to grow," Schlegel said. "All of the jurisdictions are going to have to learn how to better manage our transportation and land-use decisions to improve air-quality.

"We'll do everything, I'm certain, to try to involve them in the workings of this new agency," he said.

Environmentalists said that, to them, the issue isn't who runs the local apparatus, or power shifts among regional governments, but the quality of the air.

Jessica Hodge, Las Vegas area organizer for the Sierra Club, said her organization will watch the commissioners carefully to judge their commitment to clean air.

"It could be dangerous for the county commission," she said. "If the air isn't cleaned up, residents can hold them accountable for that.

"The county commission had tremendous responsibilities as it is, before this decision," Hodge said. "Now, (its) responsibilities are three-fold."