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SoCal Air Gets a Pass|From 9th Circuit

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The 9th Circuit on Wednesday declined environmentalists' calls for tougher regulation of smog in Southern California, ruling that federal standards to limit the pollution are adequate.

A provision of the Clean Air Act requires that major polluters, including power plants and refineries, pay emission fees in parts of the South Coast Air Basin with the dirtiest air.

South Coast Air Quality Management District substituted that program with another that draws on other financial sources, including state and federal grants.

After the Environmental Protection Agency approved the alternate program, National Resources Defense Council and Communities for a Better Environment filed a petition of review in early 2013, arguing that the district program did not do enough to reduce pollution from stationary sources in the South Coast Air Basin, in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

South Coast Air Quality Management District counsel Barbara Baird said that a ruling in the groups' favor would require about 300 major stationary sources of pollution to pay combined emission fees of $30 million to $50 million.

"It would have been a hardship on some of the public agencies in this area, if we had not been able to use this alternative method of compliance." Baird said in an interview. "We think the plaintiffs are just wrong if they assume they would get something better out of the other program than they get out of this one."

The New England Journal of Medicine this month published a study concluding that air pollution has been "trending downward progressively over the past several decades in Southern California."

Though state and federal emission standards have reduced pollution, Los Angeles Basin, home to the largest port complex in America, has some the worst air in the nation.

Ozone pollution, or smog, forms as a result of chemical reactions of volatile organic compounds, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and oxygen. The air pollution can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems and other illnesses.

"During the warmer summer and fall months, the South Coast is choked with pockets of brown ozone pollution," the National Resources Defense Council said in a June 2014 brief to the 9th Circuit. "Elevated ozone levels burn the eyes, throat and lungs, trigger asthma attacks, and complicate the survival of the young and elderly already suffering from respiratory or other ailments."

The NRDC asked the appeals court to review the EPA's approval of the SCAQMD's revision to California's State Implementation Plan, under the Clean Air Act.

But in a 22-page opinion Wednesday, the 9th Circuit said the EPA is permitted under the Clean Air Act to impose programs that are alternative to but not less stringent than air quality standards the program specified in the Clean Air Act.

The NRDC argued that the federal agency had overreached because the district's program was not permitted under the Clean Air Act, even though it strengthens pollution controls.

The group asserted that the provision of the Clean Air Act at issue, section 172 (e), "unambiguously applies only when air quality standards are relaxed, not when they are tightened," according to the March 11 order.

Judge Barry Silverman, writing for the court, did not share the NRDC's view.

"With respect to congressional policy and intent, as EPA, intervenors, and amici stress, this interpretation is reasonable because it promotes air quality, in keeping with the purpose of the CAA," Silverman wrote.

Judges Mary Schroeder and Marvin Garbis joined Silverman in denying the petition for review.

The NRDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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