Congress takes aim at the Clean Air Act, putting the limits of California's power to the test

California is confronting the limits of its power to save federal environmental protections as Congress and the Trump administration take aim at a landmark law the state has relied on for decades to clean the air of noxious smog.

A push by Republicans to roll back parts of the Clean Air Act would affect California more than any other state, rattling its lawmakers and regulators. And their legal authority to pick up the fight against California’s smog on their own is constrained.

The House last month passed a bill fiercely opposed by doctors and public health groups, including the American Lung Assn. and the American Academy of Pediatrics, that would delay for years new anti-pollution standards aimed at ultimately preventing 160,000 childhood asthma attacks and as many as 220 premature deaths in California each year.

The Trump administration had already tried using regulatory authority to put the standards on hold for a year, but walked back that action Wednesday after California and 14 other states filed suit against the delay.

The bill advancing in Congress would go much further, permanently upending the way restrictions are imposed on the ozone and small particulate matter that make up smog. No longer would regulators base decisions solely on scientific findings about what level of smog is safe to breathe. The potential cost to business would for the first time loom large in setting limits, and ultimately guide such things as when people with breathing problems are warned to stay indoors.

“It would be disastrous to do this,” said Jared Blumenfeld, former regional director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency for California and other Western states.

“The Clean Air Act has been one of the most successful and revered public health measures taken anywhere on the planet. Everyone from China to India to European nations came to my office and said, ‘How do we achieve these kinds of gains?’ This all originated in Los Angeles at a time the air was so bad it led to the creation of the EPA.”

Many state lawmakers agree, and they are vowing to keep California in compliance with the Clean Air Act as it exists now — regardless of what happens in Washington. But that turns out to be a promise not easily kept.

“This is not an easy switch whereby Congress gets rid of the standard, and California just puts it back in place,” Blumenfeld said.

Some of the most damaging pollution released inside California’s borders can only be controlled by federal regulators. Among California’s biggest concerns is what is spewed from the exhaust pipes of trucks traveling through the state that are not subject to its strict emissions rules. Such fumes account for 60% of such heavy truck pollution.

The EPA has been under pressure to toughen federal rules for trucks to enable California to meet its obligations under the act. The state and EPA have also been working on research into new technologies to clean truck emissions.

Even if the industry-friendly Trump administration slows down those efforts, the act empowers states and activists to impose pressure on the EPA in court.

But that would change under the measure passed by the House, HR 806, which would weaken the air quality standards now motivating federal action.

“We need EPA to continue to move ahead aggressively,” said Kurt Karperos, deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board. “It has a responsibility under the Clean Air Act to take action.… We are concerned this would be used as a justification to slow down.”

The pushback against the Clean Air Act in Congress is rooted in complaints, often driven by industry, that the EPA under the Obama administration set standards for air quality that are impossible to reach without harming economies in places that are already struggling, like California’s Central Valley, home to some of the worst air in the nation.

Among the most effective allies for Republicans pushing to weaken standards is the head of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which regulates 25,000 square miles. It is home to 4 million Californians, who struggle with smoggy air and soaring asthma rates.

Seyed Sadredin, the district’s executive director, said there is only so much his agency is empowered to do, and now it faces severe federal sanctions for emissions from cars and trucks it has no authority to regulate.

Sadredin recently told Congress that local businesses will soon be prevented from expanding and big highway projects forfeited under Clean Air Act sanctions the valley faces — even after the region has done everything in its power to control pollution with some of the toughest restrictions in the nation.

“It all sounds nice and noble when you look down to the valley from the outside,” he said of the tough federal standards. “If you are with the elite crowd, you might say, ‘Let’s punish the valley for something they have no control over.’ We are talking real-life impact in a place suffering from double-digit unemployment, poverty, malnutrition. This has a real impact on our people. It is not just an academic argument.”

The San Joaquin board limited its support of the House measure to the part that would exempt air districts from sanctions in certain circumstances. A public outcry moved it to back away from its push to force the EPA to consider economic impacts in determining what air is safe to breathe.

But the economic impact language is still part of the House bill that the San Joaquin board helped get passed, creating no small measure of tension between Sadredin and other air quality experts who say his dire warnings served to benefit agriculture and drilling interests averse to stricter rules.

The valley is not going to lose big highway projects and businesses if it can’t control truck and car pollution it has no authority to regulate, according to state air regulators. But it will be pushed in the areas where it does have control, they say, including cutting pollution from oil and gas wells, and residential and agricultural burning.

“It is absolutely not in the cards,” Karperos said of the punishment Sadredin warns will befall the valley in coming years under current clean air rules. A good faith plan by the valley to further reduce emissions in the places it can would protect it from such sanctions, he said. But that plan will require more action by a region resistant to it.

“There are feasible strategies,” Karperos said. “The threat of sanctions is a red herring.”

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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