Southern California air quality officials will craft rules governing warehouse, rail yard pollution

Southern California air quality officials voted Friday to craft rules governing warehouses, distribution centers and rail yards in a controversial bid to combat transportation emissions in the nation’s smoggiest region.

The governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District moved to begin devising rules to regulate freight facilities as “indirect sources” of pollution because of the truck and locomotive traffic they attract.

The approach targets cargo-moving industries that are the lifeblood of the Southern California economy but responsible for much of the most harmful, smog-forming emissions.

Diesel trucks are the greatest obstacle to clean air in the region. Though regulation has helped rein in emissions from passenger cars, truck pollution controls lag behind.

Meanwhile, increases in cargo shipments through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have led to a proliferation of warehouses and distribution centers across the Inland Empire — and with them, big rigs.

Communities near ports, warehouses and rail yards have for years urged such a crackdown on freight pollution, but it’s been fiercely opposed by business interests that say such rules will harm the growing logistics industry and stifle job growth in a sector that employs hundreds of thousands of people across the region.

The decision to proceed with warehouse regulation was a 7-6 vote along party lines, with six Democrats and one unaffiliated environmentalist member voting in favor of drafting rules and six Republicans voting against. The panel is made up of elected officials and appointees from a region of 17 million people across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Republicans from the Inland Empire and Orange County warned that freight facility rules would kill blue-collar jobs and cause the logistics industry to flee Southern California. They pleaded to leave regulation of truck pollution to the federal government and decisions about warehouses to local cities and counties.

Democrats from L.A. County said the agency had an obligation to protect the public from asthma, lung cancer and other pollution-triggered health problems, or risk falling further behind in the smog fight.

A pivotal vote of support came from Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino, a Democrat who represents the harbor area and is the Los Angeles mayor’s appointee to the panel. He had previously spoken against regulating warehouses but announced during Friday’s meeting that he had changed his position after discussions with Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Buscaino, whose parents emigrated from Italy to work on the waterfront, presented his decision in deeply personal terms, calling himself “a son of the Port of Los Angeles” who has seen communities benefit economically but suffer health-wise from port operations, including family members diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s an economic engine,” he said. “But we need to remind ourselves that we should not choke on that engine.”

The panel voted 8 to 5 to draft rules on rail yards, with one Republican, Wildomar Mayor Ben Benoit, joining his colleagues in favor of the measure.

The board delayed action, for now, on whether to act on a staff proposal to craft similar regulations for new and redevelopment projects to try to reduce emissions from construction equipment. For the region’s ports and airports, the board supported staff recommendations to pursue voluntary measures only.

The impacts of the move will depend on the policy crafted by air district staff in coming months and what is ultimately approved by the board. Some possibilities include mandates that warehouses ensure visiting trucks are on average cleaner than what’s required under state emissions standards or install electric charging stations to help transition to zero-emission vehicles.

Environmentalists and advocacy groups from warehouse-adjacent communities celebrated the decision as a first step toward curbing diesel pollution and easing the health risks to people living and going to school nearby.

“We hope this will begin a shift toward zero emissions, toward electrification,” said Ericka Flores, senior community organizer for the Inland Empire-based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. “For once, this board has listened.”

Industry groups expressed disappointment, saying the board’s push toward regulation casts uncertainty over the entire supply chain. “We will do everything we can to protect workers in California’s goods-movement industry, which supports a third of the state’s economy and jobs,” Chief Executive Shawn Yadon of the California Trucking Assn. said.

Left untouched by air district regulations is the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, which despite steep reductions in emissions under a voluntary clean-air plan remains the largest single source of air pollution in Southern California.

Amid signs that emissions progress was tapering off in recent years, the port last fall updated its clean-air plan to encourage phasing out diesel trucks in favor of natural gas and, ultimately, zero-emissions equipment. But the plan lacks new targets for reducing smog-forming emissions.

Steep cuts in freight industry pollution are crucial if the region is to meet federal health standards before key deadlines in 2023 and 2031, which require the region to cut emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxides by more than half.

Last year, the AQMD board approved a 15-year smog-reduction plan that took a voluntary approach to freight facilities, asking them to come up with their own pollution-cutting measures. But it pledged to pivot to rule-making if progress wasn’t made within a year.

In California, the jurisdiction of local air districts is generally limited to stationary facilities such as oil refineries and factories, while state and federal regulators oversee vehicles and other mobile sources that generate more than 80% of emissions.

For more than a decade, the South Coast district has proposed a more envelope-pushing strategy: clamping down on freight facilities and development projects using its authority under state law to regulate indirect sources of pollution. But to date, no such measures have made it past the drawing board.

In the San Joaquin Valley, air quality officials have since 2006 regulated indirect pollution from many new developments, including warehouses, retail centers and housing projects, and those measures have withstood legal challenges.

Backers of freight pollution regulation said the existence of such rules elsewhere obliges Southern California air quality officials to act under state law, which says air districts must work quickly to meet standards using “every feasible measure.” And they warned that failure to meet looming federal pollution-reduction deadlines could result in more devastating economic penalties under the Clean Air Act, including the loss of billions in transportation funds.

The move has taken on increased importance as the region’s progress fighting smog has faltered in recent years. After decades of improvement, bad air days for ozone, the lung-damaging gas in smog, have increased the last two years in a row.

Regulators expect little help from the Trump administration, which is in the midst of an industry-backed push to weaken air quality rules.

The California Air Resources Board this year declined to pursue statewide rules on indirect pollution from freight facilities and will instead seek other regulations targeting port trucks, cargo-handling equipment, rail yard locomotives and other freight operations.

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