Southern California air regulators will vote Friday on an air pollution plan that would allow ozone smog in the Coachella Valley to remain at dangerously high levels through 2037 ― five years longer than their current deadline to rein it in to federal limits.
Citing population growth, rising heat due to climate change, increased construction and demolition, and inaction by federal regulators, South Coast Air Quality Management District staff said they do not have broad enough regulatory power to meet a current 2032 deadline. But they said the agency will continue to make efforts to substantially reduce smog and its building blocks in the Coachella Valley.
The recommendations for the desert areas are laid out in a blueprint to reduce ground level ozone, particularly from toxic air molecules known as nitrogen oxides, or NOx, to legal levels across much of southern California by 2037. AQMD oversees air quality in portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and all of Orange County.
Overall, NOx levels will need to be slashed a whopping 83% across the Coachella Valley and greater Los Angeles to meet tougher federal limits adopted in 2015, staff concluded.
They recommended that the AQMD board of directors, including Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, adopt the blueprint, which would then need to be approved by the state air board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
They also want the U.S. EPA to “bump up” the Coachella Valley’s ozone pollution designation to “extreme,” the worst in the nation along with greater Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley, for the second time in three years. That would give them five more years to ratchet down to the legal limit set in 2015.
“Despite great strides in cleaning the air over the past several decades, the Los Angeles area still has the highest levels of ozone (smog) in the nation,” staff wrote in the draft 2022 air quality management plan. A district spokeswoman said the plan contains 50 proposed control measures in residential, commercial and industrial sectors. Examples include zero-emission water and space heating systems in homes and businesses, on cars, trucks and locomotives, and “where feasible” on power plants, back-up power generators and other industry.
State mandates aimed at grid electrification, the gradual switch from polluting cars and trucks to emissions-free or cleaner models, and other greenhouse gas measures could also bring down “traditional” air pollution that has bedeviled Southern California for nearly 80 years.
The proposed air management plan calls for stringent new actions across the region, though some critics say it does not offer enough specifics, and relies on costly, undeveloped future technologies with “to be determined” measures.
Perez said that while he would listen to all sides on Friday, “I’m obviously leaning toward supporting the staff recommendation and the plan itself, because ultimately we will not make the deadline by 2032 without federal help.”
Responding to the criticism about future technologies, he said, “the truth of the matter is the technology doesn’t exist. What do you want us to do? I’m not a magician.” He added, “We’re talking about people driving electric vehicles, but guess what? The EV charging infrastructure doesn’t exist yet. And you expect a farmworker to be able to afford an EV? The fact is we all need to do our part … whether taking the SunLine to work or deciding to become a vegan for a day.”
As for the increases in Coachella Valley pollution due to population growth and construction, he said, “We’re going to do what we can, but …the growth is going to continue, it’s not going to stop any time soon, because people can no longer afford to live in L.A. or Orange County … that’s the reality we live in.”
Agency staff said the plan was rigorous. “This is the agency’s most aggressive plan ever proposed, and for the first time includes zero-emissions technology deployment in every sector, from homes, to vehicles, to industrial sources. Unfortunately, these zero-emissions technologies are not commercially available in all applications yet, nor has the zero emissions charging and fueling infrastructure been fully developed,” said AQMD spokeswoman Kim White in an email. “The 2022 (air quality plan) relies on the flexibility allowed by the Clean Air Act to develop the technological pathways to meet the air quality standards.
“These sources are already the most tightly controlled anywhere in the nation, and this plan will require even more stringent controls.”
The plan also notes several times that AQMD regulates just 20% of ozone pollution sources, mainly refineries, power plants and other “stationary sources,” and says it’s up to the U.S. EPA, along with state air regulators, to reduce the lion’s share.
“The overwhelming majority of NOx emissions are from heavy-duty trucks, ships and other state and federally regulated mobile sources that are mostly beyond … AQMD’s control. The region will not meet the standard absent significant federal action,” it says.
EPA spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment from The Desert Sun.
L.A. traffic, port smog pollutes the desert
Smog primarily is funneled from the greater Los Angeles air basin through the San Gorgonio pass into the Coachella Valley and portions of Joshua Tree National Park and Yucca Valley, with the highest valley levels recorded in Palm Springs. The NOx emissions from tailpipes and other sources, including trucks pulling in and out of Inland Empire warehouses and freighter ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, swirl in the air with hot sunshine and volatile organic compounds to blanket the area with throat-burning pollution in warmer months. There are local sources, too, including GreenLeaf’s Desert View biofuels plant upwind of Mecca and the Sentinel Energy Center natural gas plant near Desert Hot Springs.
Breathing high levels of ozone smog can cause numerous health impacts, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and increased susceptibility to lung infection. Outdoor workers, children, older adults and people with preexisting lung disease or certain nutritional deficiencies are most susceptible.
Environmental groups across the region said that while the news is not good on the high smog levels, they are heartened that the district is fully recognizing the severity of the problem, and the need for tougher reductions.
“As it relates to air pollution in the eastern Coachella Valley, progress remains … uncertain to us,” Mariela Loera, eastern Coachella Valley policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said in an email. Staff there are still reviewing the proposed plan, but she said the effort to update the valley’s ozone pollution designation to extreme “is encouraging in that they’re recognizing the severity of the issue, but it’s also concerning that the air quality is worsening.”
Dangerous dust, hydrogen sulfide also present
Coarse, wind-blown dust is another major concern outlined in the plan, particularly in the eastern Coachella Valley, where levels often exceed legal federal limits. Potentially toxic hydrogen sulfide levels near the Salton Sea shoreline are also documented. While there are no federal limits on hydrogen sulfide, a monitoring site on the Torres Martinez reservation showed state standards were exceeded an average 38 days a year from 2014 to 2020, with a total 121 days where the excessively high levels lasted more than an hour.
The dust is mainly kicked up in the eastern valley by winds blowing from the south and east, including off the drying and possibly contaminated Salton Sea lakebed. The coarse dust, also known as “PM 10” because it consists of particulate matter 10 micrometers or smaller, can cause coughing, wheezing, asthma attacks and bronchitis, as well as contributing to high blood pressure, heart attack, strokes and premature death.
“Dust, that’s been our major concern out here because of the windstorms we have, and when that blows in the air it’s dangerous for our youth, for people with asthma, for our senior citizens,” said Perez, who lives in Coachella and has been caught in dust events himself. “There’s times where you can’t even see 10 feet away from your vehicle.”
A coalition of environmental and community groups is grudgingly supporting AQMD’s new plan, particularly because it states, “there is no viable pathway to achieve the needed reductions without widespread adoption of zero emissions technologies across all mobile sectors and stationary sources, large and small.”
AQMD operated a controversial offset program for decades that allowed power plants, including in the Coachella Valley, refineries and other facilities to continue emitting tons of NOx by buying credits from other locations that reduced it. Environmentalists won a lawsuit against the district, and the program is being phased out. Much remains to be done though, they said.
“While this plan is far from perfect, it’s a critical step in the right direction,” said Earthjustice Senior Attorney Adrian Martinez. “We are deeply appreciative that at long last the Air District acknowledges that the only path to attainment is 100% zero emissions, even though it will take a lot of work to implement this vision and make the meaningful and vital investments in non-polluting technologies.”
But industry groups and businesses that could now be required to eliminate NOx emissions completely are pushing back hard, urging the AQMD board to delay adopting the plan, to offer more flexibility and to fully weigh adverse economic impacts of imposing zero requirements.
“The 2022 Air Quality Management Plan relies on a significant transition to zero emission technologies,” wrote the LA Business Federation, or BizFed. “BizFed notes that historically (the district) has remained neutral on fuel and technology in rulemakings to allow compliance flexibility and achievement of emission reductions at a more reasonable cost. BizFed strongly recommends that the 2022 (plan) include a technology and fuel neutral policy.”
The AQMD board meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Friday, and the public hearing on the plan and possible vote are the last item on the agenda. More information is available at tinyurl.com/AQMDmeeting.
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today’s Climate Point. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @janetwilson66.
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