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L.A. air officials to vote on pollution trading [UPDATED]

February 3, 2011 |  7:53 pm

Valero_refinery_night01
A decade-long battle between Los Angeles regional air quality officials, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California public health groups over the integrity of the area's pollution trading system will be rejoined Friday, as air district officials vote on new rules governing pollution offsets.

[UPDATE Friday, Feb. 4: Southern California air quality officials adopted a plan Friday to allow industry to expand in the Los Angeles region by tapping into a public fund of free pollution credits. The vote was 10-1. Read more  here about the South Coast pollution trading program decision.]

Environmentalists contend that a proposal by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), known as Rule 1315, will lock in a phony accounting system that will count years-old pollution reductions as offsets, thus allowing businesses to build new facilities that pollute.

"The district is creating tons of credits for companies to emit soot," said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney for several environmental justice and health groups. "They are creating way more than they need for essential public services. Then they will give them to big business and new power plants."

The fight over the trading system has ricocheted through state and federal courts for years. In the waning hours of its 2009 session, the California Legislature enacted two laws to circumvent a state court ruling that had suspended the region's trading system. One of those laws explicitly authorized a proposed power plant in Palm Desert to use AQMD offsets that had been banked for use by hospitals and other public facilities.

The Los Angeles region has some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., with soot and smog that cause  thousands of premature deaths, according to scientists.

Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the South Coast board chose a version of the regulation that would, according to its own estimates, cause 125 premature deaths, rather than a version that would cause 17 premature deaths. "Fabricating these credits is not good policy," he said. "Instead of manufacturing pollution credits to dole out to polluters, the district should be working on comprehensive solutions to its dirty air."

But AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said the free credits to be created by the board would go to small businesses and public service agencies such as police and fire departments, water treatment plants and landfills. "The environmentalists' proposal would severely limit growth or place a moratorium on growth. AQMD's proposal allows for some growth and at the same time allows us to meet clean-air standards."

Atwood said the new rule would not allow the credits to be used for power plants.

In a parallel battle, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the EPA violated the Clean Air Act by failing to hold the South Coast district accountable for meeting federal health standards. The district's plan to achieve safe levels of ozone by Nov. 15, 2010, should have been rejected by the federal government, the court said. Specifically, measures to enforce air pollution from pesticides and to control vehicle emissions through mass-transit projects were inadequate, it said.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Oil refineries, such as this Valero Energy facility in Wilmington, and power plants are among the biggest polluters in the Los Angeles area, where federal health standards are consistently violated. Credit: Christina House/LA Times

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