(CN) — The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, tasked with cleaning up some of the most heavily polluted air in California's Central Valley, was accused of manipulating its accounting of pollution credits for the benefit of the oil industry.
A group of environmental activists groups, led by the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, sued the San Joaquin Valley Air District on Wednesday, seeking a court order to force it to remedy years of alleged improper air pollution controls.
"The San Joaquin Valley is overburdened by the worst air pollution in the nation; despite this, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has allowed industrial sources to increase pollution by using nonexistent or invalid emission reductions to claim compliance with the Clean Air Act," Grecia Orozco, staff attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, said in a statement.
The environmentalists claim the air district has relied on inaccuracies and loopholes in its management of emission reduction credits. The credits, which are used by industry to receive permits for new sources of pollution, have helped prioritize profits for the oil industry and other major polluters at the cost of public health, in particular in low income and minority communities in the San Joaquin Valley.
Jaime Holt, a spokeswoman for the district, said the district operates one of the most stringent permitting and stationary source regulatory programs in the nation. It hadn't yet been formally served and was analyzing the details of the complaint.
"Based upon an initial review of the issues, however, the district has fully complied with Rule 2201, which federal EPA has approved as meeting federal new source review permitting requirements," Holt said in an email, referring to the district's regulation of new and modified stationary sources of air pollution. "Furthermore, for the past several years, the district has been implementing the remedies required by Rule 2201 and authorized by EPA, despite allegations to the contrary by petitioners."
The air quality in the eight California counties that fall under the San Joaquin Valley Air District is among the worst in the U.S. in terms of ozone and fine particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Cities like Bakersfield, Visalia and Fresno, in particular stand out in terms of the unhealthy air millions of locals breath year round.
The Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly found that the San Joaquin Valley air quality doesn't meet national standards, which require that for every new source of stationary air pollution, such as oil and gas installations, there has to be a reduction in existing sources of air pollution that exceeds by as much as 50% the additional, new pollution. The end result would be that there's a net reduction in air pollution.
The California Air Resources Board, however, found three years ago that San Joaquin Valley Air District's calculation of the values it assigned to emission reduction credits that were used to offset new sources of air pollution was problematic. In particular, the report found that the credits applied were often more than 20 years old and CARB staff struggled to replicate the district's accounting of the current value of these credits.
The CARB review showed that the permitting process the district has used since 2004 was flawed, and the lawsuit aims to get an accounting of the underlying justification of these permits, said Catherine Garoupa, the executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.
Last year, Garoupa resigned, together with the two other public representatives, from the Emission Reduction Credit Public Advisory Workgroup that the San Joaquin Valley Air District had set up in response to the CARB report. She said they were rebuffed in their demands for a transparent accounting of the permits that were issued in the past 20 years.
"They insisted that they would only address forward-facing issues," Garoupa said in a telephone interview.
Environmentalists blame the outsized influence of the oil and gas industry as well as agricultural interests on the San Joaquin Valley's political landscape for air district's alleged reluctance to enforce air quality standards, according to Garoupa.
The plaintiffs want a federal judge to declare the air district's reports spanning two decades are in violation of the Clean Air Act, and to order corrections and compliance.
They are also represented by Brent Newell, and Richard Drury and Victoria Yundt of Lozeau Drury.
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