Audit: San Diego Air Quality Worse Due to Watchdog Agency Woes

Ocean Beach Pier at sunset, San Diego, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — San Diego’s regional air quality did not meet federal ozone standards, the California state auditor found Thursday, calling for the status of its air pollution to be heightened from moderate to severe.

The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District exists to shield the environment and the 3 million residents of the county from the dangerous consequences of air pollution. The agency monitors the air quality of the surrounding areas and by regulates stationary sources of local air pollution such as gas stations, industrial factories and power plants.

A report published by California state auditor Elaine Howle, however, reveals the agency has some notable shortcomings in properly fulfilling these critical duties.

Perhaps the most notable issue the state auditor found with the air quality district is how it has managed its money. While the district is governed by the San Diego County Air Pollution Control Board, it does not receive money from the county. Instead, it funds itself through a series of federal and state grants and by collecting permit and registration fees.

According to the report, the district uses the fees it collects from vehicle registrations to subsidize its permit program — a program that is currently in the red. In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the district collected $8.7 million in permit fees while the costs of running the permit program cost at least $12.5 million. So the district takes the vehicle registration fees to cover the $3.8 million deficit.

“Although state law allows the San Diego Air District broad discretion over the use of the vehicle registration fees it receives, using these funds that could otherwise be used to address emissions from mobile sources to subsidize its permitting program does not advance the district’s mission of improving San Diego County’s air quality,” Howle’s report says.

The auditor also found several issues with how the district is structured. She found the district has long failed to properly ensure that seats on a crucial advisory committee of businesses and environmentalists have been filled. One seat intended for a small business representative has been vacant for over 12 years, while another seat meant for an environmentalist has been vacant for nearly 30 years.

These vacancies meant that the advisory committee did not have the quorum required to take action on any of its agenda items during the 13 meetings the committee held between 2016 and December 2019.

Howle also found the district has fallen short when it comes to engaging with the community. While it does offer some workshops and occasionally conducts surveys to receive public input, Howle found the agency doesn’t use all its resources — like social media — to encourage public participation.

These public engagement issues are compounded by the district’s failure to keep up with investigating public complaints about air quality. Howle found at least one public air quality complaint was investigated late and another wasn’t investigated at all.

For these reasons, Howle found San Diego’s air quality should be bumped from moderate — already two slots above the ideal “met quality air standards” status — to severe, and that to meet federal ozone standards, the county must reduce emissions by at least 26 tons per day.

Howle’s report offers the district a few recommendations to help right the ship. The county should increase its fees until revenue from permit fees is equal to the cost of running the permitting program, and the subsequently freed up registration fee money should be spent towards addressing emissions from mobile sources like cars and trucks.

The district should also write up a plan to further support its public outreach goals and fill those decades-long vacant seats on the advisory board as soon as possible, Howle said.

In its response, the district said it generally agrees with Howle’s conclusions and will work on implementing the recommendations.

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