“You have to take care of the people who do not have the power to take care of themselves. You have to represent them in halls where they sometimes are not represented in. If you do not do that, then you are not really on a life mission that is worthwhile.”– South Coast Air Quality Management District Chairman William A. Burke, Ed.D., from the film, “The Right to Breath.”
For nearly a quarter of a century, Burke has been at the helm of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Governing Board (SCAQMD), the local government agency responsible for monitoring and reporting air pollution levels as well as adopting and enforcing regulations to improve air quality for nearly 17 million residents in all of Orange County and the most populated portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Burke has been a leader in air quality and environmental justice, business, healthcare, politics, international affairs, and education in the Southland since the 1970s – He has recently been reappointed to an unprecedented eighth term on the SCAQMD Board.
Burke was re-appointed last week by Speaker Anthony Rendon. His new term begins on Jan. 15, 2018, and ends on Jan. 15, 2022. With his re-appointment to a new four-year term, Burke will be the longest tenured member and the longest-serving chairman of the SCAQMD Governing Board. He has served since he was first appointed to the post in September, 1993, by then-Speaker of the Assembly Willie L. Brown Jr.
All of Burke’s appointments have been for four years, except his first term in which he filled an unexpired term. He is the longest continuously serving appointee of former Speaker Brown and the only Brown appointee to any board still serving today. In addition to holding this prestigious honor, Burke has the distinction of serving longer than any other previous Assembly Speaker appointee to any board in the State of California, and is one of the longest serving commissioners in the nation.
“I am looking forward with great enthusiasm to serving another four years on the SCAQMD Board,” Burke said. “We have accomplished a great deal, but we also have an enormous challenge ahead of us if we are to succeed in cleaning up the Southland’s smog. I am honored and appreciate the confidence placed in me by Speaker Rendon and the many other Speakers of the Assembly who have appointed me.”
Burke noted that when he first began serving on the SCAQMD Board, “on many days you could not see the San Gabriel Mountains. Today, we have the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful landscape and [mountain] views that make Southern California so beautiful.” He says that the SCAQMD has an ongoing battle to fight emissions, a task that he takes very seriously to improve the quality of life for all of California’s residence.
Communities of Color don’t always understand the importance of the work SCAQMD does in order to improve the quality of life for this community. Dr. Burke, who has been a longtime advocate for improving the quality of life for those less fortunate and under served says that “communities of color are the most vulnerable,” stated Burke. “The very nature of the things SCAQMD advocates and supervises affects our community the most and I see it as my responsibility to insure that those less fortunate are provided the best resources to improve their overall quality of life.” Stated Chairman Burke.
During his tenure as SCAQMD’s chairman, Burke has made environmental justice a centerpiece. He has initiated numerous environmental justice programs and events to ensure that SCAQMD works toward solutions for underrepresented communities most impacted by air pollution. And he has worked to empower residents of those communities to advise and assist SCAQMD in protecting and improving public health.
Through these efforts, he has exemplified that civil rights does not dead-end at environmental justice, but that it is a continuation of the same struggle.
Two of his signature programs are an annual environmental justice conference at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the Environmental Justice Community Partnership, a grassroots group that meets regularly to advise SCAQMD staff on key issues affecting their communities.
This week, Burke kicked off SCAQMD’s conference titled, “Making Sense of Sensors”, to help ensure that organization has an enhanced air monitoring presence in impacted communities.
In June, Burke hosted a town hall meeting in Compton to announce the initiation of the SCAQMD’s Community Air Toxics Initiative, to address concerns raised by residents about hexavalent chromium emissions from metal processing facilities in Compton and nearby Paramount.
In April, he chaired two town hall meetings to hear concerns from residents about the PBF refinery in Torrance. Under previous ownership by ExxonMobil, the refinery was cited for numerous air quality violations following a large explosion in 2015.
In January, Burke hosted a luncheon on Martin L. King Jr. Day, titled “Lifting as We Climb,” to honor Dr. King and also show the distinct intersection of civil rights with environmental justice.
Social worker and author Maryum “May May” Ali, the daughter of his late, close friend and boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, delivered the keynote address.
Drawing on the same theme, in March, Burke hosted The Cesar Chavez Day of Remembrance – An Inspirational Day on the Environment and Air Quality luncheon in
conjunction with the California Latino Legislative Caucus and the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
In addition to his major contributions to environmental justice, Burke introduced and SCAQMD carried out landmark programs for children and senior citizens, as well as research on the health effects of air pollution.
“During my upcoming four-year term, I want to continue to keep SCAQMD focused on environmental justice in all communities of color across the Southland,” Burke said. “We must continue the fight of reducing pollution from all sources until we no longer have disproportionately impacted communities and everyone can breathe healthful air.”