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California Air Officials Dispute EPA Letter Threatening Sanctions Due To Air Pollution

Sep 30, 2019

The Environmental Protection Agency has accused the state of failing to comply with federal clean air policy.

In a letter sent last Tuesday to Mary Nichols, Chair of the Air Resources Board (CARB), EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claimed that “since the 1970s, California has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act.” If CARB doesn’t improve some outstanding air quality plans, Wheeler threatened, the EPA could enforce various sanctions on the state including a withdrawal of federal highway funding.

“The letter from the EPA contains multiple inaccuracies, omissions and misstatements,” wrote CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey in an official statement published to the agency’s website. Among those is the EPA’s claim that California contains 82 areas that are out of compliance with federal air standards. Only 20 are out of attainment, according to a CARB spokesperson, though many have fallen behind for more than one standard. The American Lung Association does consistently rank metropolitan areas in the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles area as the most polluted in the nation.

The letter’s claim that 34 million people in California live in areas that don’t meet national air quality standards is technically true, the spokesperson acknowledged, though the state agency tends to dial that estimate down to 29 million based on residents’ proximities to those air monitors detecting the most pollutants.

The letter also pointed to California's share of a family of air quality proposals known as State Implementation Plans, or SIPs, which air districts throughout the country must submit whenever they are out of compliance with a federally imposed air quality standard. Once state air officials have approved their own air districts’ SIPs, they submit those plans to the federal EPA for final approval.

The EPA, however, is behind in reviewing these plans. Of the 373 SIPs currently backlogged nationally, 127 originated in air districts in California, according to the federal agency. “The state of California represents a disproportionate share of the national list of backlogged SIPs, including roughly one-third of the EPA’s overall SIP backlog…with many dating back decades,” Wheeler explained in the letter.

But CARB argued the EPA’s backlog is the result of the federal agency’s own inaction. “EPA has unclean hands: It sat on these documents for years and is now pounding the table about paperwork issues of its own creation,” argued Corey in CARB’s online statement.

Webster Tasat, a regional manager for air quality planning with CARB, agreed that California has its air quality challenges but denied his agency has failed. “We do our job every day and we are successful at it,” he said. “Air quality has improved immensely over the last 40 years in this state.”

Since 2000, emissions of fine particulate matter, known to exacerbate respiratory illness and linked to cardiovascular issues and diminished birth outcomes, have fallen by 26 percent, according to CARB data. During the same timeframe, emissions of sulfur oxides and oxides of nitrogen each dropped by more than half.

If California air officials don’t withdraw their backlogged SIPs, which the letter from the EPA claimed are “unapprovable”, the federal agency threatened to begin the disapproval process for them. That could then trigger a countdown for a trio of sanctions including a withdrawal of federal funding for highway safety and expansion projects.

“Any failure by EPA to approve the San Joaquin Valley’s SIPs may lead to devastating economic penalties to local regions under the Clean Air Act, including the loss of transportation funding and permitting sanctions,” wrote Samir Sheikh, Executive Director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, in a statement to KVPR.

CARB’s Tasat, however, downplayed the EPA’s threats, pointing out that these penalties are already written into the Clean Air Act. “All of these sanctions are sanctions that we know about and are familiar with,” he said, arguing the Clean Air Act also lays out a process for state air officials to review and resubmit their SIPs before the statutory clock on sanctions runs out. “We would have plenty of time to remedy those situations before that ever happens.”

Genevieve Gale of the non-profit Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, which has long advocated for stricter air quality measures from both the Valley air district and CARB, agreed the EPA’s warning of sanctions is thin. “It’s kind of a threat made up of hot air,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a real strong possibility, there’s other things that would happen in the interim that would delay that from ever happening.”

Nonetheless, Gale does appreciate that local air quality woes are gaining national attention. “Air quality in California is a very important story, so in a way I’m happy it’s being elevated to a national level,” she said.

Gale doubts the Trump administration’s concerns are in good faith, however—a sentiment she appears to share with spokespeople for both the Valley air district and CARB. If the EPA really wanted to improve California’s air quality, they agreed, the federal agency wouldn’t have revoked the state’s ability to set its own fuel emissions standards earlier in the month.