A.B. 617: Plans for Monitoring, Improving Local Air Quality Move Along – at a Glacial Pace

Meetings tomorrow will consider emission reduction plans for Long Beach, San Bernardino, and East L.A. areas.

AB 617 Community Air Monitoring Programs within SCAQMD
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Tomorrow, CARB will hold meetings to consider emission reduction plans for three Southern California communities as part of its ongoing response to A.B. 617, which requires local air quality monitoring and emission reduction plans. Register for the online meetings, at noon and 4 p.m., here.

At a time when the sky over much of California is darkened by smoke from multiple fires, monitoring air quality could seem almost besides the point. Look up: it’s clear something is very wrong with air quality. But while the orange skies terrifying half the state are definitely insidious and dangerous, other invisible toxic particulates are having deep, long term health impacts on local communities.

Environmental justice groups have fought for years to strengthen state, regional, and local monitoring of air quality. The passage of A.B. 617 in 2017 was one step towards that goal, with an eye to being able to take action against sources of pollution.

It’s just taking a long time.

A.B. 617 called for CARB to choose areas that have “high cumulative exposure burdens” for toxic air contamination and develop programs either to monitor local air pollution – to identify pollutants and sources – or to develop a plan to reduce the emissions that are already known about. Or both. The idea was to eventually develop a statewide strategy that could be applied to many communities in California, starting with the ones needing it most.

The idea was also to get local residents involved in identifying and finding solutions for the highest priority problems. While the state Air Resources Board has a role here, most of the work being done is at the regional level, pushing regional air districts to strengthen their relations with local residents and community-based organizations.

The CARB meetings on September 10 are for the purpose of formally adopting Emission Reduction Programs for the last three areas selected by CARB in the first year of the program, 2018: Wilmington/West Long Beach/Carson, San Bernardino/Muscoy, and Boyle Heights/East Los Angeles/West Commerce. All of these communities fall under the jurisdiction of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has already adopted the plans and even begun implementing parts of them. The meetings on Thursday will allow time for public comment.

It is necessary for CARB to formally adopt the plans in order for funding to be made available for any incentives they include. That is, if funding is available; the A.B. 617 process has been funded by cap-and-trade. Shifting revenue and budget uncertainty year to year – especially in a year of recession due to the pandemic – has put the new program’s allocation into a column headed by a question mark.

Some advocates have said that the proposed plans rely too heavily on incentives and not enough on regulation, anyway. While CARB and the local air districts could require stricter standards – for example, on mobile sources like diesel trucks serving a site – the tendency has been to allow industry to take the lead. For example, the ports of L.A. and Long Beach have been identified as major sources of toxic air pollution in the Wilmington/Long Beach/Carson plan. The South Coast Air Quality Management District has directed its staff to focus on a Memorandum of Understanding developed by the port and structured around the port’s own emission reduction plan. But that plan, while it includes reduction goals, lacks a strong commitment to meeting those goals, and includes no enforcement mechanism that could make it a requirement.

Advocates, among them the Coalition for Clean Air, would like to see the plans include more solid pollution reduction commitments – from both the air district and from polluting industries.

The plans were developed by steering committees which included representatives of local residents and organizations, the air districts, local elected officials, local planning and health departments, industry representatives, and academics. Participants say the process was collaborative and helped develop relations and communication among these various groups while identifying the main problems needing to be addressed. That in itself a huge benefit, but environmental justice and clean air advocates also say that’s not enough by itself. Identifying problems is an important and useful first step, but coming up with – and agreeing on – solid strategies for fixing them is just as important.

For example, in the Long Beach area’s plan, several sources of pollution were identified as main areas of concern: refineries and wells, ports, truck traffic, and railyards. Residential areas are located near all of these sources. However, each of them produce different pollution levels and types, and each would need different strategies to fix.

In general, many of the suggested strategies are high level, “big picture’ strategies, but advocates and community members want more concrete steps taken.

Other areas that need work are where the plans are actively undermined by other local actions. The Coalition for Clean Air, in a comment letter submitted to the air district, points out one of these: The expansion of the 710 Freeway “over community objections and strong support for zero-emissions truck lanes,” despite clear evidence that expanding the freeway will add more diesel truck traffic.

For its part, CARB is pushing the air district to continue to engage with community members and follow the recommendations of the steering committee.

Meanwhile, CARB and the air districts are finalizing the selection of the next cohort of communities to participate in the A.B. 617 program. Each chosen community will, as required by the bill, develop either a “community air monitoring program” or an “emission reduction program” or both.

So far, the following communities have already adopted Community Air Reduction Programs:

  • Calexico, El Centro, Heber
  • Shafter
  • South Central Fresno
  • West Oakland

A second part of A.B. 617 is the development of community air monitoring programs. While some of the above communities have also adopted these, not all of them have. In addition, Sacramento, Richmond, and San Diego have only adopted an air monitoring program but not (yet) an emission reduction program.

Monitoring is important for developing data on local sources of toxic air emissions and their extent, including fluctuating sources, or mobile sources like truck traffic on freeways which are sometimes hard to measure. There are existing local air monitoring programs, as well, but A.B. 617 sought to greatly increase the number of sensors statewide.

Most local air monitoring focuses on particulate matter – which is important, as California’s current smoky sky proves. But other air pollutants are also important to measure. And while smaller sensors are increasingly inexpensive and increasingly accurate, they are still not considered accurate enough to take action on. That is, they are useful for providing basic information to communities that CARB or the air districts can then use as a basis for more thorough and sophisticated monitoring.

Nevertheless, the more air quality monitoring there is in place, the better able state and local regulators will be to take action. However, it will take input from local residents and advocates to make sure it happens, because industry tends to resist being monitored.

And there is now way to know what might be going on behind this current smokescreen without more thorough and sophisticated monitoring.

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