Air quality regulators, embarking on a bold new strategy to reduce smog in Southern California, want to hold the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach responsible for their pledges to cut pollution from thousands of trucks, ships and trains carrying goods to and from the nation's largest port complex.
If a rule proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District is adopted, it could open the door to similar regulations on other facilities that are magnets for truck and rail traffic, such as warehouses, distribution centers and rail yards.
The ports, which are publicly owned, and industry groups are fighting the rule and vow to file suit if it is approved. The ports have slashed emissions under a voluntary plan adopted in 2006. Ports officials say the air district should not penalize them if they fail to achieve the remaining goals in the plan.
Air district officials say the ports are the largest single source of air pollution in Southern California, producing about 10% of the smog-forming emissions in a region with some of the dirtiest air in the nation and should be held to firm standards.
Environmentalists and community groups agree. They say the rule would benefit the health of millions of people, especially those who live near the ports or along freight corridors.
"We need more than just a handshake," said Angelo Logan, who heads the group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "We need something that has teeth, that's binding and will make sure the ports fulfill their promise to the community."
The rule would kick in only if the ports fall short of the emissions targets set under their Clean Air Action Plan. If the ports fail, the air district would require them to propose additional pollution reduction measures. Those could include lease provisions or incentives to get tenants to use cleaner engines.
"We're simply asking them to stay true to their own commitments," said Barry Wallerstein, the South Coast Air Quality Management District's executive officer. He said the rule requires the ports to do only what is technologically feasible, cost effective and within their legal authority. "It is far from an aggressive regulatory measure."
Port officials say their hands are tied because they do not own or operate the trucks, ships, locomotives and cargo-handling equipment that serve the port.
"In terms of extracting emissions reductions from the industry, we have done all that we can," said Renee Moilanen, manager of air quality programs for the Port of Long Beach. "There might be a perception out there that we don't want to be locked in, but we have publicly committed ourselves to these targets and we're not backing down."
Many elements of the ports' clean-air plan, including the Clean Truck Program that bans old, dirty engines from port terminals, and requirements that docked vessels shut off their diesel-powered engines and plug into shore power, have since been incorporated into statewide regulations. But others, such as measures to reduce vessel speed, remain voluntary or incentive-based.
The South Coast air district says it needs the rule because of a federal health standard for fine particle pollution — or PM2.5 — that the basin is required to meet by the end of this year. The tiny, chemical-laced particles in diesel exhaust are linked to cancer, heart disease and thousands of premature deaths a year in California.
Air quality officials say the rule probably would be modified in coming years to include other major pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, combustion gases that bake in sunlight to form ozone, the lung-searing component of smog that worsens asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. To meet health standards for ozone, the air district says it must slash nitrogen oxide emissions by a staggering three-quarters over the next two decades.
Legal experts said the dispute highlights a major constraint on local air regulators: That they have little control over some of the worst pollution sources.
In California, the state and federal government regulate emissions from cars, trucks, ships, construction equipment and other "mobile sources" that emit most of the smog-generating pollutants. Local air districts have control over only "stationary sources," including power plants, refineries and factories, though they account for less than one-third of the state's smog-forming pollution. One exception is their power to regulate "indirect sources" — facilities that attract a lot of vehicles or other mobile polluters.
Local regulators have been reluctant to use that authority because it pushes the boundaries of their jurisdiction, said Joseph Lyou, South Coast air district governing board member who also heads the Coalition for Clean Air
"But the low-hanging fruit with air pollution was picked long ago," Lyou said. "And we're at a place where we have to be creative and aggressive to improve air quality."
Business groups say the move sends a worrisome signal to other facilities that move high volumes of goods: That they could take voluntary steps to reduce pollution only to see them cemented into regulations.
"It kind of guts the whole impetus and drive to collaborate on the clean air issue," said Peter Herzog, an assistant director at NAIOP SoCal, an association of commercial real estate developers in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Air pollution regulators in California have invoked their indirect source authority on only a few occasions. A rule in the San Joaquin Valley requires developers of large new projects like shopping centers, subdivisions and warehouses to limit emissions during and after construction or pay for air quality improvement projects elsewhere. Home builders challenged the measure in court, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it in 2010.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is in the early stages of considering similar indirect source rules. Officials said they have not begun drafting specific regulations yet, but they could one day apply to stadiums, commercial developments or the nation's fifth-busiest port in Oakland.
The South Coast air district board, which could vote as early as this summer, is made up of 10 elected officials and three appointees from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.