The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just given Southern California air pollution regulators a free hand to kill even more of the local economy.
On January 13, EPA reclassified the Los Angeles area from “moderately” to “severely” out of compliance with EPA air quality rules. This reclassification will require the local regulator, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), to design a new plan to “improve” air quality.
While this may sound reasonable, it’s not. Here’s why.
The “air pollutant” of concern to EPA is fine particulate matter (PM2.5) — that is, soot and dust about one-twentieth the width of a human hair. While PM2.5 comes from smokestacks and tailpipes, it also comes from chimneys, forest fires, farms, trees and plants, mold and other sources.
PM2.5 is such a threat to public health that EPA didn’t concern itself or the public with it until the mid-1990s when, after having exhausted the regulatory potential of larger particulate matter known as PM10, EPA decided to invent health risks from, and ensuing regulations for PM2.5.
Despite great scientific and cost-benefit controversy, EPA’s first PM2.5 rules were finalized in 1997 and states were expected to implement them or face the sanction of being deprived of their federal highway funds. But before states could even implement EPA’s PM2.5 and then evaluate the results, EPA was already off to the regulatory racetrack to make the PM2.5 rules even more stringent. EPA issued new PM2.5 rules in 2006 and then, again, in 2012. Meanwhile, areas like Southern California had never complied with the 1997 rules. The EPA’s 2006 and 2012 standards put compliance even further out of reach.
But don’t get the impression that California’s air regulators have been sitting on their hands. The California Air Pollution Resources Board (CARB) got around to implementing EPA mandates in 2007 and 2008 when it issued PM2.5 emissions standards from diesel engines — rules estimated to cost the construction and trucking industries $10 billion to comply with.
Those mandates were bad enough, but now EPA has determined that Southern California air is worse, implausibly meaning the $10-billion in new clean trucks and equipment didn’t really do anything to improve air. EPA is now ordering the local regulator (SCAQMD) to figure out new ways to crack down on PM2.5. This likely means additional targeting of the construction and trucking industries, warehousing and probably wood burning fire places, especially at the beach. And this cycle is likely to continue worsening since the federal Clean Air requires that EPA continually review (translation: “tighten”) air regulations every five years. Southern California air will, in effect, never catch up to EPA’s needlessly stringent standards.
EPA asserts that the air in the south coast region made up of Los Angeles, Orange County and parts of western San Bernardino and Riverside Counties (although there has been SCAQMD jurisdiction “creep” into the eastern deserts) violates the EPA daily standard for PM2.5 in air. That standard is violated when air monitors report multiple readings in excess of 35 millionths of a gram PM2.5 per cubic meter of air for a single hour. Just a few such hourly monitoring violations on an annual basis are enough for EPA to declare an entire region out of compliance with EPA’s standards.
South coast-area air may violate EPA standards as far as EPA is concerned, but it ought not to cause any health concern as far as commonsense is concerned. CARB maintains about 35 air monitoring stations in the Los Angeles area. So on an annual basis, there are 12,775 daily readings from all the monitors. The number of daily violations of the EPA daily PM2.5 standard out of all 12,775 readings in 2015 was 185. That means that Los Angeles area air was out of compliance with the EPA daily standard a mere 1.4% of the time as measured by the PM2.5 monitors.
So is it really worth saddling the economy in just this area with additional billions of dollars in unnecessary regulatory costs to further reduce PM2.5? Further consider that no one knows precisely what caused the air quality “problems” that were responsible for the 185 air monitor readings to temporarily register the out-of-compliance values. It could be anything from fires, to Santa Ana windblown dust to vehicle tire dust to who knows what And that means that new SCAQMD rules will wind up arbitrarily cracking down on sources (like construction, trucking, warehousing and wood burning fireplaces) that may not be the cause in the first place.
Underlying all this, of course, is the reality that PM2.5 poses no demonstrable health risks to anyone. As discussed in a previous article (“Why Does Industry Keep Ignoring the Treasure Trove of Data Against EPA PM2.5 Claims,” Western Transportation News, November/December 2015), EPA has used junk science to conclude that there is no safe level of exposure to PM2.5, thereby justifying endless tightening of air quality standards. Instead of looking out for the welfare of its citizens and the economy they depend on, California regulators have eagerly and mindlessly embraced EPA’s regulatory onslaught. So what can be done?
In his 2007 book Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends and Health Risk, air quality expert Joe Schwartz wrote, “Not surprisingly, no matter how clean the air (and water) gets, the EPA/CARB/SCAQMD and all those that depend on green largess, continue to find unacceptable risks mostly based on junk science like CARB’s PM regulations or CASAC’s ozone research. The EPA and state regulators’ powers and budgets, as well as those of environmentalist, depend on a continued public perception that there is a serious problem to solve. Yet regulators are also major funders of the health research intended to demonstrate the need for more regulation. They also provide millions (if not now billions) of dollars a year to environmental groups, which use the money to augment public fear of pollution and seek increases in regulators’ powers. These conflicts of interest largely explain the ubiquitous exaggeration of air pollution levels and risks, even as air quality has steadily improved to the point that they are more than safe.”
In addition to the political changes Californians so desperately need, concerned citizens and businesses ought to get involved in the SCAQMD regulatory process. EPA has set a deadline of December 31, 2019 for SCAQMD to develop a new air quality plan. That process will likely begin in the very near future and presents an opportunity for people to participate and challenge the coming crackdown with science and economics.
We all want clean and safe air quality and the good news is we already have it. The EPA-CARB-SCAQMD air quality regulatory regime is a house of cards from scientific, economic and commonsense standpoints. Nevertheless, blowing it down will take more than just a few of us.