By Laurence Cohen

Not too long ago, the air in Southern California was visibly bad. Skies were yellow, downtown skyscrapers were obscured and some people even took to wearing gas masks to venture out.  Surrounded on most sides by hills and mountains, the emissions generated by our dependence on automobiles created a perfect storm for smog to stagnate. Faced with the daunting challenge of the worst air quality in the nation, the call to improve air quality was crucial to the health of the population at large and to people living in low-income areas in particular. The dire situation called for comprehensive solutions and bold leadership.

During his 23-year tenure as the Chair of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Dr. William A. Burke did more to improve air quality in the four-county region than any other individual. Burke has 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. The impact of his leadership has had a significant impact on air quality at the local, state, and national levels.

On June 27, 2023, he will be at the United States Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. to be presented with the Thomas W. Zosel Outstanding Individual Achievement Award at the EPA Clean Air Excellence Awards.  He will become the first African American in history to receive this prestigious award.

A partial list of the AQMD’s great success in improving air quality during his unprecedented tenure speaks volumes about his groundbreaking leadership. Burke:

  • Advocated the expansion of South Coast AQMD’s monitoring of air pollution in areas with higher levels of toxic air pollution
  • Helped establish the Asthma and Outdoor Air Quality Consortium to better understand the relationship between air pollution exposure and asthma,
  • Helped establish the Health Effects of Air Pollution Foundation to research the potential connections between air pollution, lung tumors, and brain cancer,
  • Introduced the Helping Hands Initiative to sponsor green job training during the Great Recession of 2009,
  • Called 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
    • The proposal and adoption of four guiding principles for enhancing environmental equity.

From the day he was sworn in as Chair in 1997, he announced environmental justice would become a central focus of South Coast AQMD. Well aware that people of color in low-income areas are exposed to disproportionate levels of airborne pollution.

In 2015, Chairman Burke announced the agency’s Environmental Justice Community Partnership to build stronger ties with environmental justice groups and local communities. This partnership enabled projects to effectively address environmental inequities in communities of color. Burke played a major role in the advancement of racial justice and equity efforts at the agency.

To inspire future generations to make the environment a priority, Chairman 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 engage younger generations to gain greater insight into the concerns, values, and priorities.

His legacy extends far beyond vehicle emissions to what at times were controversial rules such as the phase-out of the highly toxic, cancer-causing perc (perchloroethylene) in dry cleaning, which was met with resistance and massive protests by dry cleaner owners. The ultimate phase-out of perc ushered in a new era of Green Cleaners using nontoxic alternatives. Banning wood-burning fireplaces in future construction is also part of the expansive effort to reduce emissions. The highly popular lawn mower and leaf blower exchange programs where consumers would trade their gas-powered gardening tools for rechargeable electric ones was a creative and popular solution.

At South Coast AQMD’s March 2021 Governing Board meeting, Dr. William A. Burke announced his retirement after 27 years of service on the Board, including an unprecedented 23 years as chairman. He officially stepped down on May 31, 2021, as the Board’s longest-tenured member and the longest-serving chairman of the South Coast AQMD. The Governing Board agreed to name the auditorium located in the District’s Diamond Bar headquarters after Dr. William A. Burke for his lifelong dedication and service as an environmental justice trailblazer.

Making his home in the Palisades with his wife, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who herself broke ground as the first African American woman to represent the West Coast in Congress, Dr. Burke recently turned 84 years old and continues to advocate for cleaner air. He is surprisingly optimistic about the future of air quality. Always brash and outspoken, Burke recalls confronting automakers at an AQMD public board meeting who insisted that there would never be a market for electric and hybrid vehicles. “Now virtually every automaker is converting its product line to electric and hybrid vehicles. With the effects of climate change already here, the public now has a wide range of choices from electric lawnmowers to SUVs, and non-polluting public buses and trains. Industry is now making choices with companies like Fed Ex and Amazon already in the process of going all-electric. In total all these choices will make a significant difference in our shared future.”

Laurence D. Cohen has lived in Los Angeles Council District 11 for more than two decades. As a long-time media relations professional, he has represented AQMD, the Los Angeles Marathon, Beyond the Bell (LAUSD’s after school programs), and a large number of nonprofits.

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