With smog-ridden Southern California poised to miss a critical clean air goal 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 notified EPA Administrator Michael Regan that it intends to sue the agency for violating the Clean Air Act unless it agrees to adopt new regulatory strategies that would reduce pollution from federal sources, including oceangoing cargo ships, out-of-state trains, trucks, and aircraft.
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 considerable progress in reducing smog-forming emissions since 1980, that progress has leveled off in recent years. As a result, Southern California has repeatedly sought EPA deadline extensions.
Three years ago, when it was clear the air district would fall short of the Clinton-era benchmark, AQMD call the EPA to set cleaner standards for trucks, trains, and ships that visit California. However, the EPA has yet to act on that request.
“Even if we had zero emissions for all stationary sources in our region, we couldn’t get there,” Wayne Nastri, executive director of the air district. “And this really speaks to the need for the federal government to stand up.”
Although the new federal emissions reductions would be welcomed by environmental groups, some observers criticized the measure as a last-minute move that is unlikely to result in substantial improvements in air quality next year.
“If you’re a breather in the region, it’s pretty outrageous what’s going on,” said Adrián Martínez, senior attorney for Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit. “In 2007, these agencies came together and came up with a plan that said, ‘Hey, trust us, we’ll solve this problem.’ Fast-forward 12 years, they’re like, ‘Oh, here’s our contingency plan when we don’t meet the standard.’”
The South Coast Air District, a 6,700-square-mile basin encompassing Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties, has long held the title of the smoggiest region in the country. Since 1979, the air district has not met any of several federal standards for ozone, the lung-scorching gas commonly known as smog.
The legal threat from the air district has highlighted the unique challenge of regulating air pollution in Southern California. No fewer than three government agencies are tasked with monitoring air quality for the nearly 18 million people in the region. They include the local air district, which regulates the emissions of major pollutants, such as power plants and oil refineries, within its borders; the California Air Resources Board, which regulates the state’s cars, trucks, and off-road equipment; and the EPA, which oversees interstate and international travel and commerce.
Failure to comply with federal regulations could result in a variety of penalties. In addition to potentially losing billions of dollars in federal highway funding, businesses could face new challenges when applying for permits from the district.
“These (permitting) hurdles are pretty high, so high that we think it would result in a permit moratorium in our areas,” said Sarah Rees, deputy executive director of the air district. “That would mean that new companies or existing companies that want to make modifications would not be able to get the permits to be able to do that.”
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 greatly reduce emissions. emissions from large agricultural and construction equipment. That is not a feasible option for 2023.
Nitrogen oxides that form smog are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned.
Between 2012 and 2023, emissions of nitrogen oxides in the region will have been reduced by almost 50%, 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 said.
Meanwhile, sources of pollution under federal supervision are trending upward, according to the air district. Emissions from aircraft, locomotives and ocean-going vessels are expected to increase by nearly 10% over that same 10-year period ending in 2023.
The air district estimates that the region needs to remove 128 tons of nitrogen oxides per day to meet the 1997 ozone standards.
The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, together 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 aboard diesel-belching ships, are responsible for more than 100 tons per day of nitrogen oxides, more than the daily emissions of the 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% by 2045, could benefit the region.
“EPA recognizes the challenges facing the South Coast: It is very difficult to chart a path to achievement when further reductions are needed from trucks, trains, aircraft, ocean-going vessels and other mobile sources,” said EPA spokesperson Taylor Gillespie. . “EPA is doing our part to make progress in this air district; our recent proposal to establish new issues … limits for heavy trucks is a step in the right direction.”
South Coast officials say it’s not enough.
“Many of the rules that EPA should be enforcing on mobile sources (in locomotives, ships, aircraft, construction equipment) have been delayed,” said Rees, deputy executive director of AQMD. “They haven’t kept pace with stationary source regulation. But as for the truck rule, the EPA predicted that we will still be well above the ozone standards. So even with the strictest option in place, the truck rule is, you know, 50 years after the 1997 ozone standard, the South Coast will still be off the achievement, and pretty far off the achievement.”
Southern California’s legacy of unhealthy air is due, in part, to bustling ports, warehouses, airports, and congested highways. The region’s bustling economy and infamous traffic have always contributed large amounts of nitrogen oxides. The situation is aggravated by the region’s perpetually sunny weather, which effectively converts vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions into lung-damaging smog, and mountainous terrain that confines smog over the region.
And now, in addition to pollution, regulators are grappling with climate change, conditions that scientists say could lead to a more polluted future.
Sunlight and heat are the catalysts for smog formation. As the level of heat-trapping greenhouse gases has skyrocketed due to the burning of fossil fuels, Southern California has seen record heat.
In 2020, a year marked by scorching heat waves in August and September, there were 157 days of bad air due to ozone pollution, the most days since 1997, according to AQMD records. Perhaps most notably, on September 6, 2020, temperatures rose to 121 degrees in Los Angeles County and ozone concentrations increased to 185 parts per billion in downtown Los Angeles, making it the hottest day on record and smoggiest downtown in 26 years.
“As the temperature rises, all else being the same, like pollutant emissions, it will be more difficult for the South Coast to meet their ozone standards,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis.
The air board must also achieve even more restrictive ozone goals for 2031 and 2037. Until federal standards are met, residents will continue to face harmful levels of smog.
“I think on some level we’ve been lied to,” said Martinez, Earthjustice’s lead attorney. “Like from the beginning that this is just a farce. It’s fantasy… And who suffers? They are vents. It’s the people of the Inland Empire who have 100 days of summer covered in smog.”