Fight to Cut Smog Has Local AQMD Asking Feds' Help

Staff Reporter

With Los Angeles suffering through its hottest summer in years, bad air is back and local regulators say they've done about all they can do.

Now, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is looking for some help from the feds.

While the district has forced factories, refineries and commercial businesses to sharply reduce emissions, it's the ships, planes, locomotives and other so-called mobile sources of pollution that have largely remained out of its grasp.

So district officials are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to step up its regulation within the region through an unprecedented program that would slap fees on these polluters.

"If you are an industry that has been stepping up to the plate and doing your fair share, at some point it's totally not fair if other industries don't step up to the plate," said Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the air district.

As part of the district's proposal, funds generated by the fees would be passed along to the AQMD to provide subsidies to such large sources of pollution as the ports, railroads and airports. That, in theory, would help them convert to cleaner fuels and cleaner engines.

AQMD officials have been holding talks for months with their EPA counterparts in San Francisco, though any approval would come from the highest levels of the agency. At the same time, federal officials acknowledge new approaches are needed.

"I think everybody is realizing we are at a watershed point, and we need to do something different," said Dave Jesson, an EPA environmental protection specialist familiar with the discussions.

Big goals, diminishing progress

Just a quarter century ago, residents here were breathing the dirtiest air in the nation. In 1978 alone, the region recorded 121 Stage One smog alerts and 23 Stage Two alerts, when the air is even filthier. But there hasn't been a Stage Two alert since 1988, and until July 11, there hadn't been a Stage One alert since 1998.

The improvement didn't come about by accident. California's stringent auto emissions standards played a big role. The region also has the cleanest factories, refineries and power plants in the nation, their emissions scrubbed clean by an assortment of technologies. Even smaller operations like furniture makers and auto body shops are tightly controlled.

Despite these measures, there have been indicators of a slowdown in progress. The number of health advisories dropped to an all-time low of 12 in 1999 before growing to 18 in 2002. "Over the past four years or so, we have seen a leveling off," Wallerstein said.

At the same time, local air quality officials are coming under pressure to continue making big gains in air quality as they face a 2010 deadline to meet targets set out in the Clean Air Act.

Those targets are not just theoretical. If the agency fails to meet them, the region stands to lose billions of dollars in federal highway funds as a penalty. And should the federal government not carry out the law it would almost certainly face lawsuits from environmental groups.

As a result, the air district's latest clean air plan, which will be presented to its board this Friday, includes a host of new measures targeting the same kinds of businesses the AQMD has regulated for years.

Innovative approaches

Refineries, restaurants, power plants, factories and others will be asked to make further emissions reductions over the next decade, but AQMD officials say that will only get the region about a third of the way toward the 2010 goal without substantial help from federal and state governments.

The state is also being pushed to further reduce tailpipe emissions. The California Air Resources Board, which oversees statewide regulations, is in the midst of hashing out possible new regulations.

Meanwhile, AQMD officials have taken their plan for a fee program to the EPA amid a loss in the California Legislature earlier this year on a nearly identical program. The district had sponsored a bill carried by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-South Gate, that would have given the AQMD its own authority to levy fees on trucks, trains, ships and the like.

Firebaugh represents cities near the ports, where a conglomeration of filthy ship engines, diesel-spewing switching locomotives and idling big rigs contribute heavily to the region's pollution problem.

However, a heavy lobbying campaign by the steamship lines, railroads and others defeated the bill in committee. Firebaugh was granted the right to bring the bill back again next year, but that may not be necessary.

AQMD officials say that by dealing directly with federal officials, they would get around the need for such a bill by allowing the EPA to assess the fee under its authority and then simply pass on the funds locally. Such a program could be conducted on a pilot basis, and would not require new nationwide regulations.

"It's a targeted mechanism," Wallerstein said. "It's just a question of whether they (EPA officials) will step forward."

Industry, environmentalists respond

Word of the talks, even among regulated industries that fought the Firebaugh bill, is not well known. When informed about them by the Business Journal, some industry officials were wary.

John Browley, director of public affairs for the Union Pacific Railroad, said he did not believe such a program was warranted. He said the railroad already has a voluntary agreement with the AQMD to cut emissions from new locomotives delivered after 2005, as well as to reduce the average emissions of its fleet 67 percent by 2010.

However, local air quality officials would like to see, for example, switcher engines at the ports that burn liquefied natural gas instead of diesel fuel.

Gus Hein, director of government affairs for the Port of Long Beach, also said that the port was making significant voluntary efforts to reduce emissions. It is finishing up studies on the feasibility of electrifying ships docked at port, rather than having them run their diesel engines for power.

But he added that any program that would place fees on local ports and not on others along the West Coast would represent a competitive disadvantage. "Basically it would be pitting one (area) against another," he said.

Bob Wyman, an attorney who represents aerospace, petrochemical and other industries, which have so far borne the brunt of AQMD regulations, said he liked the idea behind the proposal spreading the cost of clean air to a wider assortment of industries.

But he warned that no one could really know whether it was a good idea yet, especially since it involved taxing or places fees on business. "The devil is in the details," he said.

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