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Air Quality

Environmental Justice Advocates Sue Air District over Lax Ozone Pollution Rule

"Our ask to the South Coast AQMD is simple: comply with the Clean Air Act and hold refineries, power plants, and other large polluters accountable for emissions that plague vulnerable communities throughout Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties."

2:29 PM PDT on August 16, 2023

Southeast L.A. refinery – CC photo via Emmett Institute/Communities for a Better Environment 2019 Toxic Tour

Environmental Justice groups have filed legal challenges to force the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to enforce clean air law. Earthjustice, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, People's Collective for Environmental Justice, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Sierra Club aim to reduce dangerous levels of ozone pollution by strengthening AQMD programs that have failed curb industrial emissions.

“We have done everything we can to warn the South Coast [AQMD] of the serious health implications of persistent ozone pollution in our air," noted Radhika Kannan, Earthjustice attorney. "For every ozone standard, they have failed to institute a functioning fee program to incentivize major polluters to cut emissions.”

The advocates took three legal actions yesterday:

  • They filed a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency, asking to end failed rules that allow large polluters to have no incentive to clean up their pollution
  • They filed a lawsuit against AQMD for not requiring large polluters to clean up pollution or pay a penalty if they fail to meet federal ozone standards
  • They provided a 60-day notice of intent to sue AQMD for failing to meet its promises to adopt a regulation by 2021

According to Earthjustice press documents, AQMD provided industrial polluters a loophole (AQMD rule 317) that allowed them to avoid penalty fines for failing to meet federal ozone standards. Rule 317, according to the advocates' petition, allows polluters to take credit for a grab bag of programs that would exist regardless, and does nothing to alleviate serious air pollution impacts in communities near industrial polluters.

Oil refineries like Tesoro and Phillips 66 are the largest beneficiaries of this loophole. Unsurprisingly, these major air pollution stationary sources are overwhelmingly in low-income communities and communities of color that are already overburdened by other pollution, including tailpipe emissions.

Historically, the Los Angeles region (AQMD covers a four-county area including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino) has experienced the
most severe ozone pollution in the nation. AQMD's extreme ozone problems can be extremely hazardous to human health, due to respiratory impacts ranging from asthma to inflammation of the lungs to premature death.

Per Earthjustice, under the Clean Air Act, AQMD is supposed to impose penalty fees on all major stationary sources of pollution every year that AQMD fails to meet the federal ozone standards. Under rule 317's illegal exemption, polluting companies avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in fees over the last decade.

“For far too long, major polluters in the South Coast air basin have avoided paying fees for adding ozone pollution to communities already overburdened with some of the worst air quality in the country," Sierra Club attorney Nihal Shrinath stated. "Despite available technology to curb these emissions and a mandate from the federal government to incentivize pollution reduction, industry has continued to jeopardize our public health, unabated."

Shrinath continued, "Our ask to the South Coast Air Quality Management District is simple: comply with the Clean Air Act and hold refineries, power plants, and other large polluters accountable for emissions that plague vulnerable communities throughout Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties.”

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