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Phillips 66 refinery employee appointed to APCD hearing board in 6-5 vote, leading to concerns about potential conflict of interest 

For the last two decades, Cal Poly environmental engineering professor Yarrow Nelson has served as a member of the SLO County Air Pollution Control District's (APCD) hearing board, using his background in scientific research to help the district navigate air pollution conflicts and emergencies, including the ongoing dust mitigation efforts at the Oceano Dunes.

But Nelson's most recent three-year term expired at the end of July, and in a move surprising to many community members, the APCD board of directors voted 6-5 to oust Nelson at a meeting on Sept. 23, instead appointing Jim Anderson, a local engineer who works as a maintenance superintendent at the Phillips 66-owned Santa Maria Refinery.

click to enlarge PHILLPS 66 At a meeting on Sept. 23, the Air Pollution Control Distric (APCD) board of directors voted 6-5 to appoint Santa Mara Refinery Maintenance Superintendent Jim Anderson to the APCD hearing board. The Phillips 66-owned refinery is regulated by the APCD. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • File Photo By Steve E. Miller
  • PHILLPS 66 At a meeting on Sept. 23, the Air Pollution Control Distric (APCD) board of directors voted 6-5 to appoint Santa Mara Refinery Maintenance Superintendent Jim Anderson to the APCD hearing board. The Phillips 66-owned refinery is regulated by the APCD.

Although Anderson previously served on the hearing board as Nelson's alternate, his recent appointment is stirring up questions and concerns about how he'll handle matters related to Phillips 66, which is regulated by the APCD and contributes to pollution in SLO County.

The APCD board of directors discussed that potential for a conflict of interest at length on Sept. 23, and it's why Arroyo Grande City Councilmember and APCD board member Jimmy Paulding said he couldn't support Anderson's appointment.

"It's kind of a classic case of putting the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse from a perception standpoint," Paulding told New Times.

The APCD hearing board is an independent, quasi-judicial body that decides on matters of conflict between the air district and the industries it regulates. The board consists of five members—an attorney practicing law, a registered professional engineer, a member of the medical profession, and two members of the general public—who help to resolve air pollution emergencies by adopting necessary rules and regulations, issuing variances from those regulations when needed, issuing abatement orders, and resolving permit disputes.

Since Phillips 66 is regulated by the APCD, Paulding said it's obvious that Anderson will have to refrain from voting on any future items involving his employer. But what's more concerning, Paulding said, is the budding potential for a land acquisition deal between Phillips 66 and State Parks.

At a California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission meeting on Sept. 24, staff and commissioners discussed the state's longtime goal of creating a southern entrance to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which staff said would provide direct access to the park's off-highway riding areas while reducing traffic and other issues at the existing entrances.

The idea of a southern entrance has been fairly abstract for years, staff said at the Sept. 24 meeting, but when Phillips 66 announced in August plans to close the Santa Maria Refinery in 2023, staff considered it a "game changer."

Situated on the Nipomo Mesa, the land currently holding the oil refinery could provide the necessary space for a future southern entrance, and staff said on Sept. 24 that State Parks plans to pursue acquisition of the soon-to-be freed-up land.

That, Paulding said, means Anderson's work with Phillips 66, combined with Phillips 66's potential ties to State Parks, could lead to conflicts of interest for Anderson in all APCD hearing board matters related to State Parks. Anderson could recuse himself from all votes related to State Parks, Paulding said, but considering the ongoing hearings regarding State Parks' dust mitigation efforts at the Oceano Dunes, that would leave Anderson with little else to work on.

Paulding also questioned the APCD board's conservative majority and their adamancy toward replacing Nelson with Anderson, who 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton described as a "stellar individual" she's known for years. Is the overarching goal, Paulding asked, to undermine ongoing dust mitigation efforts at the dunes by appointing "Lynn's friend"?

"We need somebody who can serve in an unbiased, unconflicted capacity," Paulding said.

But Anderson rejected that accusation, and told New Times that it's not his intention to disrupt the APCD's work reducing dust emissions in the Oceano Dunes. That's a local issue that Anderson said he admittedly hasn't actively followed, even as an alternate for the APCD hearing board.

That's part of the reason Anderson said he was actually shocked when the board voted to appoint him as the hearing board's engineer member instead of Nelson, who had held the position since 2001.

"That was a bit of surprise to me too," Anderson told New Times.

Although Nelson did apply to fill the hearing board position for another term, some members of the board of directors at the Sept. 23 APCD meeting pointed out that the engineer position is, according to state law, supposed to be reserved for a registered professional engineer, unless the board is unable to get the votes to appoint someone with those qualifications.

Nelson is a professor of environmental engineering and has a Ph.D. in that field, but he does not have a professional engineering license. California, he explained at the meeting, is the only state in the U.S. that doesn't have an independent license for environmental engineers. To get licensed, he would have to get a civil engineering license, which Nelson said is not his area of expertise.

Still, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, Supervisor Compton, and the rest of the board majority made it clear they wanted to appoint one of the three other applicants with professional engineering licenses, and eventually landed on Anderson because of his previous experience as the APCD alternate and his residency in SLO County (one application was from a resident of Newport Beach).

"First of all, he's been an alternate for many, many years," Supervisor Compton told New Times. "And nobody has raised any concerns in the past about his activity as an alternate. So he's been trained, he's sat through the meetings, he's done that before."

She added that no members of the public called in to the meeting to comment on Anderson's appointment. Plus, she said, Anderson is a registered engineer with a lot of experience with environmental regulations in SLO County.

"He's eminently qualified for this," Compton said.

And Anderson said he too is confident he can do the job. As a longtime alternate, he's already been through the training required of new hearing board members and knows how the APCD operates. Throughout his lengthy career at the refinery, where he oversees all maintenance activities, he's worked alongside the APCD to acquire various permits and gain compliance with environmental regulations.

Throughout the '90s, Anderson helped develop the county's Clean Air Plan, and made what he said were "great strides in the air quality countywide."

Anderson said he completely understands the concerns about his work with Phillips 66, and if any matters related to Phillips 66 do come before the hearing board, "I would recuse myself."

He's not, however, convinced that the potential land acquisition between State Parks and Phillips 66 would impede his ability to serve on the hearing board.

The hearing board, he said, likely wouldn't have any hand in land sales of any kind, and APCD Officer Gary Willey confirmed that wouldn't be something the hearing board would be involved in.

Anderson said he's really just interested in serving the community he's lived and worked in for decades now.

"Although I work in South County, I live in North County," he said at the Sept. 23 meeting, "and so I've got, you know, I feel I've got a stake in air quality here." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at [email protected].


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