Southern California freeway pollution: Is monitoring adequate?


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A federal appeals court was asked Thursday to decide what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should do about noxious air pollution along some of Southern California’s busiest highways.

The case brought against the EPA by the Natural Resources Defense Council has been knocking around the courts for years, with the federal government’s stance fluctuating with the politics of successive administrations.


The environmental group’s lawsuit seeks to hold the EPA to commitments made in the 1990s to expand air-quality monitoring to areas where there is evidence that rising soot levels damage public health. Emissions from ships, trucks and trains transporting goods in the Los Angeles region have been blamed for about 2,100 early deaths each year, according to the California Air Resources Board.

On Thursday, the three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed by NRDC lawyer Robert E. Yuhnke seemed skeptical of his assertions that the federal government violated its own regulations by failing to address emissions levels exceeding limits set in earlier plans.

U.S. Justice Department lawyer Heather Gange argued that EPA guidance normally evolves, and that the agency rightfully interpreted its rules in accordance with current needs and standards.

Environmentalists suffered a setback in a related case in September when a 9th Circuit panel ruled that air quality watchdogs in Southern California couldn’t impose emissions limits on idling trains because that could interfere with interstate commerce, which is regulated by the federal government.

That decision dealt a blow to air quality regulators attempting to limit emissions in the densely populated areas around San Pedro Bay ports, through which about 40% of the nation’s containerized cargo passes.

--Carol J. Williams

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