State lim­ited in its fight to save anti-smog rules

Congress aims to weaken reg­u­la­tions, pos­ing a chal­lenge for Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Halper

WASH­ING­TON — Cal­i­for­nia is con­fronting the lim­its of its power to save fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions as Congress and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion take aim at a land­mark law the state has re­lied on for decades to clean the air of nox­ious smog.

A push by Repub­li­cans to roll back parts of the Clean Air Act would af­fect Cal­i­for­nia more than any other state, rat­tling its law­mak­ers and reg­u­la­tors. And state of­fi­cials’ le­gal author­ity to pick up the fight against Cal­i­for­nia’s smog on their own is con­strained.

The House last month passed a bill fiercely op­posed by doc­tors and pub­lic health groups, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Lung Assn. and the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics, that would de­lay for years new anti-pol­lu­tion stan­dards aimed at ul­ti­mately prevent­ing 160,000 child­hood asthma at­tacks and as many as 220 pre­ma­ture deaths in Cal­i­for­nia each year.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had al­ready used its reg­u­la­tory author­ity to put the stan­dards on hold for a year, prompt­ing Cal­i­for­nia to join 14 other states on Tues­day to file suit against the de­lay.

The bill ad­vanc­ing in Congress would go much fur­ther, per­ma­nently up­end­ing the way re­stric­tions are im­posed on the ozone and small par­tic­u­late mat­ter that make up smog. No longer would reg­u­la­tors base de­ci­sions solely on sci­en­tific find­ings about what level of smog is safe to breathe. The po­ten­tial cost to business would for the first time loom large in set­ting lim­its, and ul­ti­mately

guide such things as when peo­ple with breath­ing prob­lems are warned to stay in­doors.

“It would be dis­as­trous to do this,” said Jared Blu­men­feld, for­mer re­gional direc­tor of the fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency for Cal­i­for­nia and other Western states. “The Clean Air Act has been one of the most suc­cess­ful and revered pub­lic health mea­sures taken any­where on the planet. Ev­ery­one from China to In­dia to Euro­pean na­tions came to my of­fice and said, ‘How do we achieve th­ese kinds of gains?’ This all orig­i­nated in Los An­ge­les at a time the air was so bad it led to the cre­ation of the EPA.”

Many state law­mak­ers agree, and they are vow­ing to keep Cal­i­for­nia in com­pli­ance with the Clean Air Act as it ex­ists now — re­gard­less of what hap­pens in Wash­ing­ton. But that turns out to be a prom­ise not eas­ily kept.

“This is not an easy switch whereby Congress gets rid of the stan­dard and Cal­i­for­nia just puts it back in place,” Blu­men­feld said.

Some of the most dam­ag­ing pol­lu­tion re­leased in­side Cal­i­for­nia’s bor­ders can only be con­trolled by fed­eral reg­u­la­tors. Among Cal­i­for­nia’s big­gest con­cerns is what is spewed from the ex­haust pipes of trucks trav­el­ing through the state that are not sub­ject to its strict emis­sions rules. Such fumes ac­count for 60% of such heavy truck pol­lu­tion.

The EPA has been un­der pres­sure to toughen fed­eral rules for trucks to en­able Cal­i­for­nia to meet its obli­ga­tions un­der the act. The state and EPA have also been work­ing on re­search into new tech­nolo­gies to clean truck emis­sions.

Even if the in­dus­tryfriendly Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion slows down those ef­forts, the act em­pow­ers states and ac­tivists to im­pose pres­sure on the EPA in court.

But that would change un­der the mea­sure passed by the House, HR 806, which would weaken the air qual­ity stan­dards now mo­ti­vat­ing fed­eral action.

“We need EPA to con­tinue to move ahead ag­gres­sively,” said Kurt Karperos, deputy ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer at the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board. “It has a re­spon­si­bil­ity un­der the Clean Air Act to take action.… We are con­cerned this would be used as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to slow down.”

The push­back against the Clean Air Act in Congress is rooted in com­plaints, of­ten driven by in­dus­try, that the EPA un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion set stan­dards for air qual­ity that are im­pos­si­ble to reach with­out harm­ing economies in places that are al­ready strug­gling, like Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley, home to some of the worst air in the na­tion.

Among the most ef­fec­tive al­lies for Repub­li­cans push­ing to weaken stan­dards is the head of the San Joaquin Val­ley Air Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Dis­trict, which reg­u­lates 25,000 square miles. It is home to 4 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans, who strug­gle with smoggy air and soar­ing asthma rates. Seyed Sadredin, the dis­trict’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, said there is only so much his agency is em­pow­ered to do, and now it faces se­vere fed­eral sanc­tions for the emis­sions of cars and trucks it has no author­ity to reg­u­late.

Sadredin re­cently told Congress that lo­cal busi­nesses will soon be pre­vented from ex­pand­ing and big high­way projects for­feited un­der Clean Air Act sanc­tions the val­ley faces — even af­ter the re­gion has done ev­ery­thing in its power to con­trol pol­lu­tion with some of the tough­est re­stric­tions in the na­tion.

“It all sounds nice and noble when you look down to the val­ley from the out­side,” he said of the tough fed­eral stan­dards. “If you are with the elite crowd, you might say, ‘Let’s pun­ish the val­ley for some­thing they have no con­trol over.’ We are talk­ing real-life im­pact in a place suf­fer­ing from dou­ble-digit un­em­ploy­ment, poverty, mal­nu­tri­tion. This has a real im­pact on our peo­ple. It is not just an aca­demic ar­gu­ment.”

The San Joaquin board lim­ited its sup­port of the House bill to the part that would ex­empt air dis­tricts from sanc­tions in cer­tain cir­cum­stances. A pub­lic out­cry moved it to back away from its push to force the EPA to con­sider eco­nomic im­pacts in de­ter­min­ing what air is safe to breathe. But the eco­nomic im­pact lan­guage is still part of the House bill that the San Joaquin board helped get passed, cre­at­ing no small mea­sure of ten­sion between Sadredin and other air qual­ity ex­perts who say his dire warn­ings served to ben­e­fit agriculture and drilling in­ter­ests averse to stricter rules.

The val­ley is not go­ing to lose big high­way projects and busi­nesses if it can’t con­trol car and truck pol­lu­tion it has no author­ity to reg­u­late, state air reg­u­la­tors say. But it will be pushed in the ar­eas where it does have con­trol, they say, in­clud­ing cut­ting pol­lu­tion from oil and gas wells and res­i­den­tial and agri­cul­tural burn­ing.

“It is ab­so­lutely not in the cards,” Karperos said of the pu­n­ish­ment Sadredin says will be­fall the val­ley in years ahead un­der cur­rent clean air rules. A good faith plan by the val­ley to fur­ther cut emis­sions in the places it can would pro­tect it from such sanc­tions, he said. But that plan will re­quire more action by a re­gion re­sis­tant to it.

“There are fea­si­ble strate­gies,” Karperos said. “The threat of sanc­tions is a red her­ring.”

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