April 30, 2004 - From the April, 2004 issue

SCAQMD Struggles To Bring the Region Into Compliance (Conformity) With Federal Mandates

Over the past few years, the possiblity of being cited as non-compliant with federal air quality standards has loomed large over Southern California. Triggering the loss of federal highway funds, such a charge would be devastating for the region's economy and mobility. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Dr. Elaine Chang, South Coast Air Quality Management District's Deputy Executive Officer/Planning, Rule Development and Area Sources, in which she discusses how the SCAQMD is working to keep the region in compliance with federal guidelines.

Elaine, the Los Angeles basin in the last three years has seen an increase in air pollution after experiencing a steady decrease over the last decade. What has contributed to this reversal in trends?

We believe several factors have contributed to this phenomenon. First, weather definitely plays a significant role. Last year, the weather in Southern California was ideal for ozone formation. In fact, when you factor in the weather, you do see a slower trend of air quality improvement. Second, we saw a much higher than expected growth in population in the eastern region of Southern California, as well as more SUVs than we previously projected. Third, the fuel mixing that occurred in the transition from MTBE to ethanol also had some impact. Technical data indicates that mixing of fuel causes an increase of evaporation of the fuel.

What is the district's current plan for responding to this surge in air pollution in the Los Angeles air basin?

In our most recent (2003) Air Quality Management Plan, we call for all agencies to double their efforts in pollution reductions. Specifically, we're focusing on the mobile source emissions. This involves not only enforcing the standards for new vehicles, but dealing with existing high emissions vehicles-looking for cost effective technologies and funding to replace engines earlier than we would under normal circumstances.

To this effect, we're working to continue the Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program, which provides funds on an incentive-basis for the incremental cost of cleaner than required engines and equipment. We're also looking into additional funding that could be used for engine retrofits and replacement applications. In house, the District continues to examine the limits of our own limited mobile source authority-we're currently looking at whether we have the authority to regulate the yacht tractors used at the ports.

MIR interviewed SCAG's Mark Pisano in February. He discussed the risks that the region faces of a conformity lapse with regard to the standards set in the Clean Air Act. Can you provide our readers with background on what conformity requires and how significant the risks are of a region being out of conformity?

The threat of a conformity lapse was taken into account in SCAG's recently released 2004 Regional Transportation Plan. Under this plan, the region will run into so-called "conformity lapse," leading to federal highway funds being withheld, which would be catastrophic. Mark is right on when he describes the potential impact in the billions of dollars that would be withheld, not only in terms of potential impact on the local economy, but also the adverse impact that would have on air quality.

How real is the risk? How close is the region to not meeting our goals, and how much more mitigation do we need to meet those goals?

he risk probably is not as immediate as we thought prior to the release of SCAG's 2004 RTP. However, the RTP assumes significant emissions deductions that need to be delivered in order to keep the region in conformity, which would require more funding than is currently available. So, we are not out of the woods yet. We may not have an emergency for the next couple months. However, we could have the danger of the June 8 conformity lapse. But, every time the state prepares a transportation implementation plan we need to be sensitive to conformity. If we have a shortfall, unless we can make up from other sources, than we'll run into anther conformity lapse.

Pollution obviously is not easily managed by local government; it's a regional problem. How would you assess the South Coast region's current ability to mitigate and regulate air pollution? Does the SCAQMD have appropriate authority and tools to meet its mission and goals? What authority is it wanting?


The District has the responsibility to bring this region into compliance. We coordinate well with SCAG and ARB on this matter. In terms of what we can do within our responsibility, I think we're probably somewhat frustrated when we approach federal sources. We haven't gotten much cooperation from the Federal Government to deliver their portion of emission reduction. Because of the Federal preemption, many sources, such as trans-aircrafts and ships, are beyond our control except when we provide incentive programs and funding to reduce emissions. We also work well with the state to push for their mobile source regulations. The state board responded very well to our request last summer when they adopted their portion of the original air quality management plan to step up to the plate and commit additional near term tons, emission reductions, for this region. And, we do appreciate that.

With a regional population of 17 million and growing, what is SCAQMD's strategy for citizen outreach to improve the discourse around air pollution and to enlist the public in meeting the compliance standards that the district promulgates?

Of course, we work with stakeholders and the environmental community to bring to their attention our need and the support we need to push our programs forward. We also have monthly town hall meetings in various communities throughout the four county region to listen to people's concerns and, at the same time, to let them know where we need their help to provide support through their elected officials. From time to time, the polls show that air quality is one of the top five concerns expressed by the public. We believe that, in general, we have the public support, though sometimes we need to transmit that into specific actions. When we go before the state Legislature, we need to be able to have some set aside funding to help move forward with the air quality programs here.

What's the practical nexus between air quality and federal transportation funding? More specifically, what is the District's attitude re current TEA-21 reauthorization negotiations on Capitol Hill?

Obviously we're disappointed in the TEA-21 negotiations as they are unfolding. With the TEA-21re-authorization, we were looking not just for the funding, but for more funding to be earmarked for air quality purposes. In the past, we haven't seen enough funding specifically for air quality purposes, even though that's what it was originally designed for. Of course, we get a secondary benefit when you have better traffic flow and less congestion. When you reduce this funding, it definitely won't help us at the Air Quality Management District. But, even with appropriate funding, we need a specific commitment from Congress that a portion of the money will have to be spent for air quality projects. That would be ideal.

If we were to interview you again a year from now, what would we be talking about? Will we be seeing any reduction in air pollution in the air basin? What significant technological controls might we be discussing?

A year or two from today, you will see many more regulations, at least locally, being passed. Today, the board just passed regulation for controlling stationary diesel engines, with a specific provision to protect school children. There are many excitinag regulatory programs being developed here.

On the technology side, we're looking at more cost-effective diesel and retrofit technologies, NOX control technologies, and the hydrogen fuel cell. Even through it's not near term, we believe fuel cell technology is an important building block for us to reach attainment for the new PM 2.5 and AR ozone standards. I believe, and I sure hope, that we will have a lot more we can talk about by then.


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