[Source: The Press Enterprise] As the worst smog season in years winds down, new doubts appear to cloud a costly strategy broached three months ago by Southern California’s regional air quality agency to bring air pollution levels down to healthful levels.
In late June, the newly hired top administrator for the South Coast Air Quality Management District proposed a clean-up plan that could cost as much as $1 billion a year for years to come by providing truck fleet owners and other polluters financial incentives to acquire cleaner operating machines.
But no clear way to cover the cost has emerged and the air seems to be getting worse. Most days this summer failed to meet the federal health standard for lung-searing ozone in Southern California’s ocean-to-mountain air basin.
So far this year, pollution levels exceeded the health standard during 128 days – making 2016 the worst smog season in at least four years. During July and August, only two days met the health standard for ozone. Air district officials have blamed a summer of hot, stagnant weather that traps pollution in the air basin.
Life has been tougher for many people with respiratory conditions.
“We definitely had a lot of summer asthma cases,” Dr. Sunil Saini, who operates asthma and allergy clinics in Upland, Fontana and San Dimas. “And it’s not just asthma, but also a lot of allergy and sinus cases, and I think it was because of the air pollution.”
In June, Wayne Nastri, the air district’s acting executive officer, said in press briefing that Congress could create a “clean air investment and clean-up fund,” which would be similar to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund used to clean up polluted industrial sites and groundwater contamination.
Nastri was an official for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. He took the helm of the air district’s staff in April shortly after a new Republican majority took control of the district governing board. The GOP majority, saying they wanted a business-friendly approach to smog clean-up strategies, voted to fire longtime Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein.
Air district officials have since acknowledged they have made no progress on the congressional-fund effort.
But they have floated the idea of increasing annual vehicle registration fees paid by air district residents by $30 to $60 per car. That would require a two-thirds majority vote of the state Legislature, because it would be considered a new tax.
The idea is not unprecedented. Residents in eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley pay an additional $12 in registration fees that raises $29 million a year for their regional air district.
In Southern California, a $60 increase could raise as much as $800 million a year, said William A. Burke, chairman of the air board, during a Sept. 9, public meeting at air district headquarters in Diamond Bar.
“At that point, you are about finished,” he said about raising money needed for the incentives. But he said he received a cold response from both business and environment groups.
“Nobody wants to pay $60,” he noted at the meeting.
The idea of hiking vehicle registration fees to pay for pollution-reduction incentives has been opposed by both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers.
“A lot of Californians are scraping by and they can’t afford it,” said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore. “I will lead the charge in shooting that one down,” she said.
Higher registration fees would encourage people to hang onto older, higher polluting cars and discourage the[m] from buying cleaner new cars, which have higher registration fees, Melendez said in a telephone interview.
State Senate leader Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, also panned the idea, saying in a statement that polluters should pay for emission reductions – not people and communities burdened by air pollution.
“We will not raise taxes on hardworking Californians to pad the pockets of polluters. Period.”
De León is among the critics of the air pollution clean-up proposal because it relies more on business-friendly financial incentives for industry rather than imposing tougher regulations.
Nastri was not available for an interview, but Philip Fine, the air district’s deputy executive officer, said that it is premature to criticize the air district funding strategy. He said a report will be out this month identifying about a dozen revenues sources.
One of these ideas includes imposing fees on cargo containers that arrive at Southern California ports and move through the region.
Revenue also could be raised through the state’s cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions because reducing such emissions in Southern California’s air basin also cuts unhealthful ozone and particle pollution that’s targeted by the air district.
But so far, the congressional funding idea and the proposed vehicle registration tax just don’t have a chance politically, said Adrian Martinez, a Los Angeles-based attorney for Earthjustice, a national environmental group.
“To call these pie in the sky may be too nice,” Martinez said. “You don’t see any reality in these options.”
Martinez said he fears the air district could “spin its wheels for years” pursuing an unfunded incentive program when it could be imposing the rules needed to force polluters to cut emissions.
Meanwhile, asthmatic children, the elderly and others are suffering fr[o]m the health consequences, he said.
Fine said that meeting federal health standards will require a combination of incentives and regulations, including rules would require about 270 of the region’s largest smokestack polluters – including power plants, oil refineries and factories – to cut emissions by a third in the next 15 years.
The financial incentives, Fine said, would go mostly to truck owners to help them replace their engines with the cleanest models before they would be required to do so under federal rules.
Burke said in an interview he is optimistic that Californians [would be willing to] pay more taxes and fees to improve air quality if they better understand the gravity of the problems. Air pollution results in an estimated 6,000 early deaths a year, he said.
“I have seen some polling showing that Californian are different than people in other states,” Burke said. “If people in California see it’s something they want, they are willing to pay for it.”
Source: The Press Enterprise
October 2, 2016