Southland air regulators threaten to sue EPA over smog

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With smoky Southern California set to miss a critical clean air goal next year, local regulators are now threatening to sue the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming the feds have made their “impossible” work.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District recently advised EPA Administrator Michael Regan that it intends to sue the agency for violations of the Clean Air Act unless unless it agrees to adopt new regulatory strategies that would reduce pollution from federal sources, including ocean freighters, foreign trains, trucks and planes.

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

Although state and local regulators have made significant progress in reducing smog-forming emissions since 1980, that progress has leveled off in recent years. As a result, Southern California has repeatedly requested time extensions from the EPA.

Three years ago, when it was clear the Air District would fall short of the Clinton-era benchmark, AQMD called the APE to set cleaner standards for trucks, trains and ships visiting California. However, the EPA has not yet responded to this request.

“Even if we were to have zero emissions from all stationary sources in our region, we would not be able to achieve this goal,” said Wayne Nastri, Air District General Manager. “And so that really shows the need for the federal government to stand up.”

While further federal emissions cuts would be welcomed by environmental groups, some observers have criticized the move as an eleventh-hour gamble that likely won’t result in substantial air quality improvements by then. ‘next year.

“If you’re a respite in the area, it’s pretty outrageous what’s going on,” said Adrian Martinez, senior attorney for Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit. “In 2007, these agencies got together and came up with a plan that said, ‘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 basin spanning Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties — has long held the title of the most polluted region in the country. Since 1979, the Air District has failed to meet any of several federal standards for ozone, the lung-burning gas commonly known as smog.

The Air District’s legal threat has highlighted the unique challenge of regulating air pollution in Southern California. No fewer than three government agencies are responsible for overseeing air quality for the region’s nearly 18 million residents. They include the local air district, which regulates emissions from 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 state; and the EPA, which oversees interstate and international travel and commerce.

Failure to meet federal standards could result in various penalties. In addition to the potential loss of billions of dollars in federal funds for highways, companies could face new challenges when applying for permits from the district.

“These (permit) hurdles are quite high — so high that we believe it would effectively result in a moratorium on permits in our areas,” said Sarah Rees, deputy air district general manager. “This would mean that new businesses or existing businesses that want to make changes would not be able to obtain permits to be able to do so.”

In the April 15 letter to the EPA, Air District General Counsel Bayron T. Gilchrist argued that 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 facilities and vehicles and significantly reduce emissions from large agricultural and construction equipment. This is not a feasible 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%, Gilchrist wrote. But “almost all of those reductions” will come from cleaner vehicles regulated by the California Air Resources Board and facilities regulated by AQMD, the letter says.

Meanwhile, sources of pollution under federal oversight are trending up, according to the air district. Emissions from aircraft, locomotives and ocean-going vessels are expected to increase by almost 10% over this same 10-year period ending in 2023.

The Air District estimates that the region must eliminate 128 tons of nitrogen oxides per day in order to meet 1997 ozone standards.

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, according to AQMD. The ports, where 40% of the country’s imports arrive in diesel ships, are responsible for more than 100 tonnes of nitrogen oxides per day, more than the daily emissions of the region’s 6 million cars.

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

“The EPA recognizes the challenges facing the South Coast – it is very difficult to chart a path to achievement when more reductions are needed for trucks, railroads, aircraft, ocean-going vessels and others. mobile sources,” EPA spokesman Taylor Gillespie said. . “The EPA is doing our part to achieve success in this air district; our recent proposal to set new issues limits for heavy goods vehicles is a step in the right direction.

South Coast officials say that’s not enough.

“A lot of the rules that the EPA should be enforcing on mobile sources — on locomotives, on ships, on airplanes, on construction equipment — have fallen behind schedule,” said Rees, deputy chief executive of AQMD. . “They haven’t kept pace with stationary source regulation. But on the truck rule itself, the EPA…predicted that we will always be well above ozone standards. So even with this most stringent option in place, the truck rule is, you know, 50 years after the 1997 ozone standard, the South Coast will still be out of reach – and quite a ways out of the way.

Southern California’s legacy of unhealthy air is due, in part, to busy ports, warehouses, airports, and congested highways. The region’s booming economy and infamous traffic have always contributed to large amounts of nitrogen oxides. The situation is compounded by the region’s perpetually sunny climate, which effectively turns vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions into lung-harming smog, and mountainous terrain that confines toxic haze to the area.

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

Sunlight and heat are catalysts for smog formation. As the level of heat-trapping greenhouse gases has increased due to the burning of fossil fuels, Southern California has experienced record heat.

In 2020, a year marked by scorching heat waves in August and September, there were 157 bad air days for ozone pollution – the most days since 1997, according to AQMD records. . Perhaps most notably, on September 6, 2020, temperatures soared to 121 degrees in Los Angeles County and ozone concentrations reached 185 parts per billion in downtown Los Angeles, making it the hottest day on record and most polluted downtown in 26 years.

“As the temperature rises – with everything else maintained, such as pollutant emissions – then it will be more difficult for the South Coast to meet its ozone standards,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at the Air Quality Research Center. UC Davis.

The air board must also meet even more restrictive ozone targets by 2031 and 2037. Until federal standards are met, residents will continue to brave unhealthy levels of smog.

“It’s like on some level, I think we’ve been lied to,” said Martinez, Earthjustice’s lead attorney. “Like from the start, this is just a sham. It’s fantasy. … And who suffers? It’s respirators. These are the inhabitants of the Inland Empire who have 100 days of summer covered in smog.

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