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AQMD's weaker new smog rules under attack from state and environmentalists

An explosion at an ExxonMobile refinery in Torrance caused four minor injuries on Wednesday, February 18, 2015.
Daniella Segura/KPCC
The ExxonMobile refinery in Torrance, Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

State leaders and environmentalists are pushing back against the board overseeing air quality regulators for the Los Angeles basin because of its adoption of new anti-smog regulations favored by the oil industry.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is under attack from three directions over its Dec. 4 decision to adopt weaker pollution rules preferred by the Western States Petroleum Association over a more stringent program proposed by AQMD staffers.

The California Air Resources Board responded to that decision with a critical letter telling the AQMD board that its decision did not meet the requirements of state or federal law. A CARB representative told KPCC on Wednesday that the agency doesn't plan to sue in the short-term, but it could take administrative actions in the future if a series of discussions with AQMD officials and the board about the changes don't bring the results it wants.

Also Wednesday, a coalition of environmental groups sued the AQMD, seeking a judge's order setting aside the Dec. 4 decision and ordering refiners and other stationary sources of air pollution to install new pollution control devices that were in the AQMD's now-defunct proposal.

Meantime, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin deLeon this week said he wants to add three state-appointed members to the AQMD board. That is in response to its December action as well as to the new Republican majority's firing of the AQMD executive officer Barry Wallerstein last week.

The politics and policies of air pollution control in the Los Angeles metropolitan region can get complicated, so here's a breakdown explaining why this is happening now.

Why is the AQMD suddenly under fire?

The 13-member AQMD board's members are appointed by various government bodies representing L.A., Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties and cities. Some members are also appointed by state leaders. For years, the board has been run mostly by Democrats, who tend to impose more stringent air pollution laws.

In February, though, a strategy devised by state Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte to populate important local boards with Republicans succeeded when two Republicans were added to the AQMD board, one of whom replaced a Democrat. The board's new majority, by political affiliation, is 7 Republicans, five Democrats and one who does not claim a party designation.

The Republican goal is to balance air quality regulations with rules that enable more business growth and job creation. A mix of Republicans and Democrats on the board supported the weaker air pollution rules passed in December. But a party-line vote of seven Republicans voted to fire the longtime executive officer of the board last week.

What's the political blowback?

DeLeon said he will introduce a bill in the near future that would add three new members to the AQMD board, a move intended to add some diversity he says the board now lacks.

"It's time to update the makeup of the AQMD board," he said.

One member would be appointed by the governor, one by the Assembly speaker, and one by him, the Senate president. They would presumably be Democrats, given that party's dominance in the state and Legislature.

"We have seen a hostile takeover by Republicans of the AQMD," DeLeon said. "The health outcomes of our children and families is at risk and the oil industry is attacking our clean air policy."

He said the bill is his response to AQMD board actions last week firing Wallerstein and refusing to reconsider its December vote on nitrogen oxide emissions.

What's all the fuss over the AQMD's December decision on Nitrogen oxides?

Southern California air has never met state and federal standards for ozone pollution, which is associated with various respiratory and health problems. In EPA-speak, it's considered an "extreme ozone non-attainment area." To reduce ozone pollution, the AQMD had proposed further reducing the emission of oxides of nitrogen -- known as NOx. Those contribute to the amount of fine particulate matter in the air.

The AQMD staff had been working for three years to devise new rules that would limit the NOx that could be emitted by stationary pollution sources, mostly refineries and a cement plant. The AQMD board voted, not for that version, but for a proposal favored by the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents local refineries.

The WSPA proposal permits refiners and other stationary sources of pollution to emit 14 tons of oxides of nitrogen daily versus only 12 tons envisioned by the AQMD staff plan. The board also voted for a plan that relieved refiners and other polluters of a proposed requirement to install new emission controls and instead permitted them to buy air pollution credits.

Who's suing?

The Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the AQMD over the decision. They called the staff-written proposal "the most significant smog-fighting proposal within its jurisdiction in a decade."

The groups want a Superior Court judge to set aside the December NOx decision and require refineries and other stationery polluters to install equipment to reduce the amount of NOx they put out. The groups do not want the companies to be able to buy pollution credits instead.

"This is a program that has made it particularly cheap for polluters like refineries to keep polluting instead of putting on lifesaving pollution controls," said Maya Golden-Krasner, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Can the AQMD buck state and federal air pollution laws?

Theoretically, the state Air Resources Board could kick the AQMD's plan back to them.

Air pollution regulation is a bit like a pyramid. The regional groups like AQMD are powerful, but the air quality management plan it is about to submit to the state must meet state laws, and the state has ensure it to meet federal laws.

California Air Resources Board Executive Officer Richard Corey told the AQMD board in a letter that the Dec. 4 plan did not reduce pollution enough and that the state board could not approve it.

"It falls short of what is needed to attain federal air quality standards," by the earliest practicable date, Corey wrote.

The plan the AQMD adopted didn't reduce NOx emissions enough from refineries and other stationery sources of pollution. It also didn't achieve the reductions fast enough, Corey said.

The law says the AQMD can let regulated companies buy pollution credits only if there are so few of them that the ultimate result would be the same as if the companies had installed the best available pollution reduction equipment.   Corey said the pollution credits program AQMD board approved did not meet that goal.

So far, the state Air Resources Board has no plans to sue. The agency can make the determination that the AQMD plan falls short of state requirements. If that happens, the ARB would put the plan through an administrative proceeding that could lead to the ARB holding a hearing about whether it should be changed. The state or region could also face federal sanctions, like withholding transportation funds, if the region does not submit a plan to the EPA.

Correction: An earlier version of the story said the ARB could sue the AQMD. The ARB says its legal options do not include filing a lawsuit.

South Coast letter

Verified petition