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Editorial: Smoggy times call for serious measures to clean up freight pollution

A driver walks past a row of trucks that prepare to leave their shipping containers at the Port of Los Angeles on November 2, 2017.
A driver walks past a row of trucks that prepare to leave their shipping containers at the Port of Los Angeles on November 2, 2017.
(Los Angeles Times)

Southern California isn’t faring so well these days in the war on smog. After years of progress cutting pollution and clearing the skies, the number of bad air days has surged in the last two years. On several days last summer, ozone reached such unhealthy levels that it prompted public health alerts and warnings to stay inside.

The worsening air quality comes as the region is facing a federal deadline to slash smog-forming pollution 45% by 2023. To make matters worse, more than 80% of that pollution is created by vehicles — particularly diesel trucks — that are regulated by the state and federal governments. And the federal agency responsible for cleaning up such pollution is now run by an anti-environment, anti-science zealot who has halted a planned stiffening of emissions standards.

So, yes, these are desperate times for the Southern California leaders tasked with cleaning the air.

That’s why the South Coast Air Quality Management District is again considering new rules that would require warehouses, railroads and new residential and commercial developments to cut pollution from the diesel trucks, locomotives and construction equipment used at their sites. The district may not be able to regulate diesel vehicles directly, but it can regulate facilities that are magnets for them.

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Goods movement is a rapidly growing, highly polluting industry that is operating in the nation’s smoggiest region.

Among other possibilities, such “indirect source rules” could require warehouse operators and developers to use cleaner bulldozers or forklifts on site; limit the number of old, dirty trucks serving their warehouses; or pay a fee to help trucking companies buy low-polluting vehicles. The district’s governing board is expected to vote Friday on whether to begin the process of creating the rules.

The board is also expected to approve voluntary measures for commercial airports and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — most of which have adopted or are working on their own plans to cut pollution from trucks, buses and cargo-moving equipment.

The AQMD has considered indirect source rules in the past only to have them batted down by business groups, which argue that such regulations could squelch development and job creation, particularly in the growing trade and goods movement industry. This latest proposal is again facing heavy opposition from business leaders and skepticism from AQMD board members who worry about slowing economic growth.

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There’s been a building boom of warehouses and distributions centers in the Inland Empire to handle cargo from the busy ports of L.A. and Long Beach. Warehouse operators, in particular, have protested the proposed regulations, saying they have no control over the independently owned trucks that pick up and drop off cargo at their facilities.

But here’s the problem: Goods movement is a rapidly growing, highly polluting industry that is operating in the nation’s smoggiest region. It’s also a region that is facing a deadline to clean up the air, and penalties (including the loss of federal transportation funds) if it does not do so. Plus, too many residents still live with unhealthy levels of pollution that can permanently damage children’s lungs and raise adults’ risk of heart attacks and strokes. The industry has to step up and do what it can to cut emissions more deeply and rapidly.

Of course it would be far better for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move more quickly in setting new standards for cleaner truck engines — or at least to offer more funding to expedite the transition to low-and-zero emission trucks. But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has shown no willingness to do anything that might actually help clean the air or cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Officials in Sacramento could conceivably funnel more money from the state’s climate change program to subsidize the purchase of cleaner trucks. But local leaders in Southern California can’t stand idly by while smog makes a comeback.

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