Southland air regulators threaten to sue the EPA over smog

With smoky Southern California poised to miss a key clean air target next year, local regulators are now threatening to sue the Environmental Protection Agency, saying the federal government has made their job. “impossible”.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District recently informed EPA Administrator Michael Regan that it did intends to sue the agency for violating the Clean Air Act unless you agree to adopt new regulatory strategies that reduce pollution from federal sources, including ocean-going cargo ships, trains, trucks, and out-of-state airplanes.

The notice marks a tense new chapter in the district’s 20-year struggle to meet a federal standard established in 1997. If Southern California fails to meet those standards in 2023, which is almost certain, federal authorities could impose severe penalties, such as the withholding of certain transport funds.

Although state and local regulators have made significant progress in reducing smog-producing emissions since 1980, this progress has stabilized in recent years. As a result, Southern California has requested repeated deadline extensions from the EPA.

Three years ago, when it was clear that the air district was not going to live up to the Clinton-era benchmark, the AQMD guest the EPA to set cleaner standards for visiting California trucks, trains and ships. However, the EPA has not yet acted on this request.

“Even if we were to have zero emissions for all stationary sources in our region, we wouldn’t be able to achieve it,” Wayne Nastri, executive officer of the air district. “And so this really speaks to the need for the federal government to stand up.”

Although the new federal emissions cuts would have been welcomed by environmental groups, some observers have criticized the move as an 11th hour move that would hardly result in substantial improvements in air quality within the next year.

“If you’re a breather in the region, it’s pretty scandalous what’s going on,” said Adrian Martinez, senior attorney at Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit. “In 2007, these agencies got together and put together a plan saying, ‘Hey, trust us, we’re going to fix this.’ Fast forward 12 years, they say, ‘Oh, here’s our contingency plan when we don’t meet the standard.’ “

The South Coast Air District – a 6,700-square-mile catchment area that covers Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange counties – has long held the title of the nation’s smoggiest region. Since 1979, the air district has not complied with any of the many federal standards for ozone, the lung-burning gas commonly known as smog.

The air district legal threat has highlighted the unique challenge of regulating air pollution in Southern California. No fewer than three government agencies are tasked with overseeing air quality for the region’s nearly 18 million residents. They include the local air district, which regulates the emissions of major polluters, such as power plants and oil refineries, within their borders; the California Air Resources Board, which regulates cars, trucks, and off-road equipment in the states; and the EPA, which oversees interstate and international travel and commerce.

Failure to comply with federal standards could result in a number of penalties. In addition to the potential loss of billions of dollars in federal highway funds, companies could face new challenges when seeking permits from the district.

“These obstacles (permits) are quite high, so high that we think they would actually lead to a moratorium on permits in our areas,” said Sarah Rees, deputy executive director of the air district. “This would mean that new businesses or existing businesses wishing to make changes would not be able to obtain the permits to do so.”

In the April 15 letter to the EPA, Air District Councilor Bayron T. Gilchrist said it would be unfair to penalize the South Coast for its failure to comply.

Without federal intervention, the only way state and regional officials could meet the air quality standard would be to eliminate emissions from all state-regulated buildings, power plants, industrial plants, and vehicles, and significantly reduce emissions. of large agricultural and construction equipment. This is not a viable option by 2023.

Smog-forming nitrogen oxides are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned.

Between 2012 and 2023, nitrogen oxide emissions in the region will have been reduced by nearly 50 percent, Gilchrist wrote. But “nearly all of these reductions” will come from cleaner vehicles regulated by the California Air Resources Board and facilities regulated by the AQMD, the letter reads.

Meanwhile, sources of federally controlled pollution are increasing, according to the air district. Emissions from aircraft, locomotives and ocean-going vessels are projected to increase by nearly 10% over the same 10-year period ending in 2023.

The air district estimates that the region must clear 128 tons of nitrogen oxides per day to comply with 1997 ozone standards.

According to AQMD, the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, collectively the largest in the nation, are the largest stationary source of air pollution in Southern California. Ports, where 40% of the nation’s imports arrive aboard belching diesel ships, are responsible for more than 100 tons per day of nitrogen oxides, more than the daily emissions of all 6 million cars in the region.

The EPA declined to comment on the potential litigation, but noted that a proposed federal rule for heavy trucks, which aims to reduce nitrogen oxides by up to 60% in 2045, could benefit the region.

“The EPA recognizes the challenges faced by the South Coast – it is very difficult to chart a path to achievement when further reductions are needed from trucks, railways, airplanes, ocean-going vessels and other mobile sources,” said EPA spokesperson Taylor Gillespie. . “The EPA is doing our part to achieve results in this air district; our recent proposal to set up a new issue limits for heavy trucks is a step in the right direction ”.

South coast officials say it’s not enough.

“Many of the rules the EPA should enforce on mobile sources – on locomotives, ships, planes, construction equipment – are overdue,” said Rees, the AQMD Deputy Director-General. “They haven’t kept up with regulation from fixed sources. But on the same truck rule, the EPA … has predicted that we will still be way above ozone standards. So even with the stricter option in place, the truck rule is that you know, 50 years after the 1997 ozone standard, the south coast will still be out of reach and pretty far to reach. “

The legacy of Southern California’s unhealthy air is due, in part, to crowded ports, warehouses, airports, and congested highways. The region’s vibrant economy and notorious traffic have always contributed high amounts of nitrogen oxides. The situation is exacerbated by the region’s perpetually sunny climate, which effectively transforms vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions into lung-damaging smog and mountainous terrain that borders toxic haze on the region.

And now, in addition to pollution, regulators are grappling with climate change, conditions that scientists say could lead to a smog future.

Sunlight and heat are the catalysts for smog formation. As the level of heat-trapping greenhouse gases has risen from burning fossil fuels, Southern California has seen record heat.

In 2020, a year of scorching heatwaves in August and September, there were 157 days of bad air from ozone pollution, the most days since 1997, according to AQMD records. Perhaps notably, on September 6, 2020, temperatures rose to 121 degrees in Los Angeles County and ozone concentrations have increased 185 parts per billion in downtown Los Angeles, making it the hottest day on record and the smokest downtown day in 26 years.

“As the temperature rises – everything else is kept unchanged, such as pollutant emissions – it will be harder for the South Coast to meet its ozone standards,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Research Center for Quality of the Sea. air at UC Davis.

The Air Board must also meet even stricter targets for ozone by 2031 and 2037. Until federal standards are met, residents will continue to challenge unhealthy levels of smog.

“It’s like they lied to us on some level,” said Martinez, Earthjustice’s senior lawyer. “As from the beginning this is just a farce. It is fantasy. … And who suffers? They are respiratory. They are the people of the Inland Empire who have 100 days of summer shrouded in smog. “