He leaves with a legacy of cleaner air, achievements for environmental justice and historical inclusionary votes for All.
Dr. William A. Burke finished his final Governing Board meeting at South Coast Air Quality Management (South Coast AQMD), making history yet again. On May 7, South Coast AQMD’s Governing Board approved the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule, a first-of-its-kind regulation aimed to curb emissions associated with the booming warehouse industry. The rule would reduce pollution in communities near these warehouses, particularly communities of color. Dr. Burke retired after 27 years of service, including an unprecedented 23 years as chair. The Diamond Bar headquarters’ auditorium was newly named after Dr. Burke for his lifelong dedication and service as a leader and environmental justice (EJ) trailblazer.
“As I’ve said before, clean air is a right, not a privilege. I have spent my career fighting to be a voice of the unheard, so that all people have the opportunity to breathe clean air,” said Dr. Burke. “I’m so proud of the work accomplished during my tenure and when the sun set on my last day of service, I felt at peace because I did the best that I could.”
As chairman, Dr. Burke left a long list of accomplishments in tackling regional air quality issues, improving public health, and providing a voice for the public on air quality issues. On his first day as chair in 1997, he announced environmental justice would become a central focus of South Coast AQMD. His efforts included developing the Environmental Justice Community Partnership to build stronger ties with EJ groups and communities to address environmental inequities in communities of color in the region, spearheading the formation of the EJ Advisory Group; and initiating the Health Effects of Air Pollution Foundation, created to research the potential connections between air pollution, lung tumors and brain cancer.
To help engage the next generation of clean air policymakers and scientists, Dr. Burke expanded outreach initiatives to youth and young adults by spearheading the Why Healthy Air Matters (WHAM) school program to increase awareness of air quality issues and empower youth to drive positive change. He also developed the agency’s Young Leaders Advisory Council to gain greater insight into the concerns, values, and priorities of younger generations.
He also established the annual celebration of two pioneering leaders of our communities to commemorate their legacies, not just to our communities, but also to the environment, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Remembrance and the Cesar Chavez Day of Remembrance. At these two events South Coast AQMD also gives awards to individuals who exemplify the teachings of these two great men but also leaders in their own right in cleaning the air we breathe.
“Dr. William Burke has served the AQMD Board and all of Southern California with unprecedented consistency and an unwavering commitment to provide inclusionary services and resources to all. Our community is often the last on the list to be thought of, but under Dr. Burke’s leadership, the Black community has always been at the forefront, and his impact has been tremendous. Because of Bill’s leadership, we all can ‘breathe’ a little easier and we understand the importance of what environmental justice really means,” stated Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., executive publisher of The Los Angeles Sentinel.
“You have to take care of the people who don’t have the power to take care of themselves. You have to represent them in halls that they sometimes are not represented in. Because if you don’t do that, you’re not really on a life mission that’s worthwhile,” said Dr. Burke.
Dr. Burke was appointed to the AQMD Board by then, Speaker Willie L. Brown, Jr. “When I appointed Bill in 1993, I knew he would be a true champion for the people,” said Brown, “As my longest serving appointee, he has taken incredible steps toward protecting the Black community and all underserved communities of color.”
During his tenure, Dr. Burke shepherded many successful programs and initiatives for improving air quality including: the expandingsion theof South Coast AQMD’s monitoring of air pollution in areas known as toxic hot spots; the establishment of the Asthma and Outdoor Air Quality Consortium to better understand the relationship between air pollution exposure and asthma; the introduction of the Helping Hands Initiative to sponsor green job training during the Great Recession of 2009; a call for incentives for the clean-up, removal and replacement of diesel engines; an eight-point initiative reviewing regulations governing toxic air pollutants linked to cancer and birth defects; and, the proposal and adoption of four guiding principles for enhancing environmental equity.
“It was my true honor to serve as Dr. Burke’s vice chair on the South Coast AQMD Governing Board, and to see firsthand, an incredible leader in action,” said Dr. Clark E. Parker. “It has been an even greater honor to call him my friend for more than 50 years. I wish him the very best as he begins this next chapter.”
Dr. Burke’s legacy of service to the residents and businesses of the South Coast Air district resulted in many clean air benefits including:
“When I was Chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) in 1993, we made a revolutionary decision to transition to cleaner, alternative fuels. This was thanks to guidance from Bill Burke. He knew that black and brown people rode our buses and were being exposed to toxic fumes every day, and he urged us to use alternative vehicles. He was a true visionary who had the foresight to know that cleaning the air and protecting the people meant transitioning away from diesel,” said Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre
At his last Governing Board meeting, board members, agency staff and members of the public extended a heartfelt thank you to Dr. Burke for his leading the charge to make the air cleaner for all who breathe the air in Southern California. His hard work and commitment to making the world a better place for all has made the agency more aware of air quality issues in disadvantaged communities, and more responsive to residents of communities of color. His legacy will benefit many generations to come.