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Clean Air Authority director wants dialogue with city officials

The Sunnyside City Council expressed its displeasure with the Yakima Clean Air Authority this past Monday night, vocalizing its disdain to the point of wanting the agency deactivated.

While the local governing body just wants to see the Clean Air Authority go away, Les Ornelas, director of the embattled agency, would like to start a dialogue with the city in hopes of coming to some sort of resolution.

Mayor Ed Prilucik brought up a motion before Council asking the Yakima County commissioners to deactivate the Clean Air Authority, which stemmed from a meeting of the Yakima Valley mayors. Prilucik offered several reasons this past Monday night why Council should support his motion concerning the Clean Air Authority.

One of the more dominate points made by the mayor concerned a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, which in essence said the federal government removed the authority of the local Clean Air Authority to govern clean air regulations on lands and properties within the Yakama Indian Nation Reservation. The EPA interpretation of the law basically removes the local Clean Air Authority's rule over such county communities as Toppenish, Wapato and Harrah. Prilucik said he was concerned about increased costs in annual assessments to help fund an agency that he views as serving no benefit to the taxpayers.

Besides obvious financial concerns for the city, the Sunnyside City Council has been one of the more vocal critics of the Clean Air Authority. Many harsh feelings developed within Council following the Clean Air Authority abandoning the city on a air monitoring project of Monson feedlot.

Ornelas said he is very respectful of the concerns of the local City Council.

Ornelas said from his interpretation of regulations, the decision to deactivate the Yakima County Clean Air Authority would have to come from the agency's board of directors, not the Yakima County commissioners. Ornelas said with the exception of input and oversight from the Yakima County auditor and treasurer, the Clean Air Authority is a separate agency.

"We answer only to the board," said Ornelas of his agency.

The board of directors met earlier this week, said Ornelas. The soonest directors could hear a motion to deactivate and any other concerns would be during the agency's October meeting.

Ornelas contends the EPA letter the mayor referred to is accurate in its intent. But the issue surrounding the dialogue within the letter, he feels, concerns the implementation of federal air quality rules. Ornelas said he believes his agency and the state still have control in implementing air quality regulations, which in many cases are more stringent that the federal requirements.

Ornelas said he has not discussed the situation with officials from either Toppenish, Wapato or Harrah.

One area of concern Ornelas did have with the Sunnyside City Council's thoughts was how it views the public relations aspect of the agency.

"I am very, very concerned about that," said Ornelas. "I am prepared to discuss that (with them)."

Ornelas said the political environment nowadays often creates a hostile environment for agencies to work in.

"It becomes very unsettling," said Ornelas.

Rather than having brought the issue to light in public, Ornelas said he would have liked to sat down with Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell and the city council to address concerns.

"My concern here is some of these issues need to be discussed," said Ornelas. "I am prepared to go down there."

Yakima County Commissioner Ron Gamache, who is chairman for the county board this year and a director on the Yakima Clean Authority, said there are still a lot of issues to discuss concerning the City Council's request to deactivate the Clean Air Authority.

"It is a difficult situation," said Gamache. "It we do not have a Clean Air Authority, the rules and the regulations don't go away."

Gamache said he wants to sit down and start the dialogue with city officials to clear up concerns and see what kind of resolution can be reached.

"We are looking at it," said Gamache.

Prilucik still stands by his statements on Monday night concerning the Clean Air Authority.

"At this point in time, I believe the agency is not capable of adequate response or constructive dialogue for any issues or concerns involving the City of Sunnyside," said Prilucik. "The city has attempted on numerous occasions to discuss issues with the Authority and history has shown it to be unsuccessful at both staff level and the board level."

Prilucik feels the city is interpreting the letter from the EPA correctly. The mayor said the ruling from the EPA will benefit Sunnyside. He said the Yakama Nation will now have an agency (EPA) that may be willing to enforce the law in an equitable manner.

"This area of Yakima County is upwind from Sunnyside and with any type of increased enforcement, Sunnyside will benefit," said Prilucik.

Prilucik said he is pushing for the disbanding of the Clean Air Authority because he has concerns with the way the agency operates.

"As an elected government official, I have a duty and responsibility to the public to perform to the best of my ability for the benefit of the public," said Prilucik. "When I see an agency with a history of less than adequate performance, a history of less than adequate public service, and a history of less than adequate response to the concerns of the citizens and other agencies, it is embarrassing. It also prompts me to action."

The only resolution the mayor sees is for the Clean Air Authority to be taken out of existence.

"Dissolve the agency and allow the Washington State Department of Ecology to assume the enforcement of the Clean Air Act for the benefit of the people of Sunnyside and the rest of Yakima County," said Prilucik.

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