The Man Who Moved Mountains
by Allison Seale
"Only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.”— Robert F. Kennedy
Karsten Vieg was 32-years-old and a recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Law when he accepted a Ford Foundation fellowship with the California Assembly's Office of Research (OOR). The Office of Research was a non-partisan entity created by Assembly Speaker Jess “Big Daddy” Unruh (D-Los Angeles) in 1966 so that the California legislature, which had only recently become a full-time legislative body, could rely on a group of specially trained people to research and write legislation to tackle complex problems beyond the scope of expertise of any individual Assembly member. To be a member of the Office of Research was an opportunity to be an author of substantive legislation, but it also meant that your work would bear the names of others—the elected officials. Your sense of accomplishment had to come from a desire to serve and affect change, but then to quietly move on to the next issue.
Vieg’s first assignment with the OOR was a response to reports of people being involuntarily committed to mental hospitals for years, often with no path to release. He spent the first several months of 1967 holding hearings on the commitment process and speaking to health care providers, attorneys, and patients to determine recommended changes. The fruit of his efforts was a bill that became known as the California Mental Health Act of 1967 (AB 1220). The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Frank Lanterman (R-Los Angeles), expanded California’s mental health treatment programs and provided protections and time restrictions for involuntary commitments. Though the legislation initially was contested by the state’s medical associations, a modest memo in Vieg’s calendar on August 6, 1967, stands as a testament to the thoroughness of his work: ‘Bill Passes! 74-0 Assembly, 29-0 Senate.’ It was a huge victory for the Office of Research in general, and Vieg in particular.
Vieg’s work on the Mental Health Act often took him to Los Angeles. He, like many others, had seen the January 27th issue of Time Magazine which featured a photo of Los Angeles, barely visible through the yellow-brown haze of smog. The accompanying story, “The Polluted Air,” described the problem that was becoming ever-present.
Smog had become a persistent blanket of foul-smelling, yellow-brown vapor that regularly spread over the greater Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Children were routinely kept off playgrounds, the elderly and sick were warned not to go outside, and doctors were advising an estimated 10,000 residents with lung problems to move away from the smog saturated areas each year. Geography and population made a bad situation worse. Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego are located in coastal areas bounded on each side by mountains. When cooler air blows in from the ocean, the warmer air—and the smog—is trapped and held close to the surface. The effect is similar to being trapped in a covered ashtray with a lit cigarette.
As air pollution grew year by year, Los Angeles became an early leader in attempts to curtail it. They’d banned household incinerators, but the problem continued to grow. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that A.J. Haagen-Smit, a professor of biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, had determined that smog was largely a by-product of incomplete combustion in automobile engines. The internal combustion engine of the mid-1960s was so inefficient that one out of every 10 gallons of gasoline pumped into cars in Los Angeles—roughly 700,000 gallons every 24 hours—escaped into the atmosphere.
In 1959, California legislature launched its first formal efforts to deal with auto pollution when it directed the Department of Public Health to adopt standards for community air quality and motor vehicle emissions. Clearing the air was a complex problem, and one that seemed to have few convenient solutions. From the beginning, the auto industry road blocked, stalled and otherwise resisted California’s efforts. Those early skirmishes between the public good and the entrenched auto manufacturing technology of the day would play out again and again and continue to the present day. But whatever pressure or annoyance the auto industry may have felt from California prior to 1967, it was nothing compared to what the next several months would bring.
In the last days in August 1967, just a couple of weeks after Vieg finished his work on the mental health legislation, the worst smog attack since the late 1950s engulfed Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. John Foran (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee decided something needed to be done. Pete Schabarum (R-Los Angeles), an assemblyman from Los Angeles who was also a member of the transportation committee, agreed.
So when the two sought assistance from the OOR for someone to help them research what was feasible and draft a comprehensive bill to address air pollution, they wanted Vieg. He immediately went to work organizing hearings designed to give interested parties an opportunity to share their concerns and ideas for solutions to the problem. The first was held in Los Angeles to explore the problem of smog and involved testimony from American auto manufacturers.
In an October 1967 memo, following that first hearing, Vieg stated the problem in the simplest terms he could: “Any lasting solution to exhaust emission or evaporation loss control involves engine and fuel redesign by Detroit. Redesign is expensive, and every year it can be delayed is money saved as far as Detroit is concerned. Thus, we have a situation in which the people who are least inclined to help us with our problem are the people whom we must turn to for help.”
To say the auto industry was disinclined to help may have been putting it generously. As Vieg prepared for his second hearing to discuss alternatives to the internal combustion engine, he’d been buoyed by the enthusiastic interest he’d received from General Electric and some aerospace companies that were interested in developing alternative vehicles after the Vietnam war ended. The day before the scheduled hearing, Vieg returned from lunch to find the auto industry’s lobbyist sitting at his desk. The next day, nearly every person on his list canceled and expressed a sudden change of heart.
At the time, the Auto Manufacturers of America (AMA) was the only lobby that had an office within the capitol building. That was an early indication of the amount of influence wielded by the auto industry in California. At the national level, just a few months before Vieg had begun his work to reduce smog, Congress had worked on passing its own antipollution bill based on California’s early work on pollution abatement—regulations that had failed to reduce smog in the state’s populated basins. When the legislation passed the Senate, it passed with an amendment authored by California Senator John Murphy that recognized California’s unique smog problem and authorized the state to pass even more stringent pollution controls on automobiles than those set by the federal government. But, while the bill was still in committee, John Dingell, a congressman from Michigan trying to protect the interests of automakers, struck the Murphy amendment and in its place attached a provision that would require California to get the approval from the federal government before it could crack down any harder on car emissions.
Vieg was frequently in Los Angeles during his work with the mental health legislation. As he began working on the smog bill, had become aware that, Al Wiman, a reporter at Los Angeles talk radio station KLAC, had been working on a radio documentary about smog for months. And though Vieg knew working with a member of the media could have been grounds for his dismissal, Wiman could be a powerful asset in making sure the public was aware of dates for scheduled hearings and, that if the bill in Washington was allowed to pass as written, the smog problem in California would continue to worsen. Wiman’s listeners were encouraged to express their concerns about smog to Congress by filling out postcards that would be hand delivered to its members by Wiman before their vote. When John Dingell heard that Wiman had hundreds of thousands of postcards and was piling them up in front lawn of the Capitol building, Dingell had security guards escort them off the grounds. But California Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren got wind of what was happening, and invited Al to stack the letters up there. It made for an even better photo opportunity, and California was granted its waiver.
One of the key provisions of California’s waiver required that any laws passed in California be both technologically and economically feasible. To achieve this, Vieg did two things: First, he helped organize a technical advisory panel with experts who could independently examine what was necessary for human health and what limits on emissions were possible from mass produced internal combustion engines. Then, after he received the panel’s recommendations, he sent a survey—developed by the advisory panel—to car manufacturers around the world and asked them if they could meet the recommended standards for the various pollutants. Though not one American auto manufacturer responded to the survey, car manufacturers in Germany and Japan were eager to expand their sales in the U.S. and expressed a willingness to work with California to meet the new requirements.
When the bill Vieg drafted was introduced to the California Assembly by John Foran as AB 357 in late January of 1968 for discussion, there were eight provisions in the initial draft, the most significant of which stated that new gasoline-powered cars, trucks and busses could not be sold or registered in California, beginning with the 1970 model year, unless they met new minimum standards for crankcase and exhaust emissions and fuel evaporation. The standards were made tighter for the 1972 (later changed to 1974) model years. Standards for diesel-powered vehicles were to be established by 1972. It was the first time that vehicles were required to meet specific emissions requirements to be sold or registered in the state.
During the process of the initial hearings, Vieg became aware that the one thing the auto industry was even more intent upon defeating than smog controls was any discussion of alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Realizing this was the industry's Achilles heel, he got permission to draft legislation that required that a quarter of the vehicles purchased by the state of California be low emissions vehicles. It was clear to Vieg that any legislation he might propose on alternatives would probably never go anywhere, but as long as the auto industry didn’t know that, they might be able to convince them to accept more stringent controls on their internal combustion cars. That legislation was introduced as AB 356.
Meanwhile, to continue to build support for the legislation, Vieg made personal visits to the offices of each and every legislator in the state to hear their concerns and to answer their questions. At one point, Vieg received a message summoning him up to Jess Unruh’s office. Unruh was the charismatic velvet hammer of California politics some called “Big Daddy.” No member of the OOR had previously been summoned to the Speaker’s office, and Vieg was concerned. When Vieg arrived at the Speaker’s office, Unruh, who had not yet decided if he would support the anti-smog legislation, introduced Manny Post, the treasurer of the state’s democratic party who also owned several Volkswagen dealerships. He asked Vieg why he was trying to put Post out of business with the bill he was writing. Vieg calmly explained that Volkswagen had been very cooperative and planned to work with the state to achieve the proposed emissions. Vieg was dismissed but two hours later was again summoned to the Speaker’s office. Unruh wished him luck and gave him his support.
That support was demonstrated a few months later when the bill was sent to the state Senate Transportation Committee, led by Senator Randolph Collier (D-Siskiyou). Collier was whispered to be the auto industry’s bulwark of last resort and that rumor appeared to have some truth to it when Collier threatened to keep the bill off of the Senate floor for discussion. Vieg instructed another OOR staffer to search the dockets for any legislation sponsored by Collier. There was just one: The winter of 1967 had been an extremely cold one with a large amount of snowfall in the Sierra mountains, and Collier had proposed a bill seeking funding for the purchase of a number of snow plows. Armed with this knowledge, the day before it was to be discussed in the Assembly Transportation committee, Vieg had a casual conversation about the irony of it with a key member of Unruh’s staff. The next day, when Collier’s bill came up for discussion in the Assembly, it was abruptly tabled pending a “technical review” over concerns about the pollutant emissions of the proposed snow plows. That was the end of the objection from Siskiyou senator.
And that’s the way it went during those first months of 1968. As each hurdle appeared, Vieg found a way around it. His work on the the two bills lasted, in all, 10 months and had been physically and emotionally draining. It concluded much like his work on the mental health legislation with a small note on his calendar July 16, 1968: “PASSED SENATE. AB 357 32-0. AB 356 32-0.” Then, a week later, on July 25, 1968, there is another notation: “Reagan signs smog bill.” Against tremendous odds, Ronald Reagan—then governor of California—signed Assembly Bill 367 into law. Commonly referred to at the time as California’s “Pure Air” law, this legislation established the nation’s strongest controls on automotive smog emissions by setting limits on the amount of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen permissible from internal combustion engines.
Only those elected officials who had added their names to the bill were present for the Reagan’s signing of the bill. As a member of the Office of Research and the ghost writer for the legislation, Karsten Vieg celebrated the victory privately. And though his efforts went largely unrecognized, it is his work that became the foundation for the national Clean Air Act passed in 1970.
Engraved in the frieze of the state Treasury building in Sacramento, is a challenge to all who pass: “Give me men to match my mountains”. Karsten passed this building every day as he walked to work and said he would challenge himself to keep going with these words. He surpassed the challenge. Karsten was more than a match for the mountains, he moved them.