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EPA's air tests to be challenged

Environmental groups plan to sue in an effort to get air quality monitored along Southland freeways.

May 29, 2008|Louis Sahagun and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

A coalition of environmental groups plans to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today to force it to overturn motor vehicle emissions limits for Southern California, charging that the targets fail to address hazardous pollution faced by 1.5 million people who live next to freeways.

In a petition to be filed in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, the Natural Resources Defense Council is demanding comprehensive monitoring of air quality along freeways, including the 710 Freeway, where traffic flow averages 12,180 vehicles per hour -- more than 25% of them diesel trucks.

Of particular concern to the coalition are measurements taken by South Coast Air Quality Management District monitors that are far from heavily traveled roadways where cancer risks from diesel particulates are greatest.

Federal policy prohibits local air regulators, including the AQMD, from using measurements near a known large pollution source, in this case a truck-clogged freeway that serves the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, to calculate regional air pollution amounts.

Regional air and transportation officials said they sympathized with the environmental groups but were worried such a lawsuit could cost Southern California billions in federal transportation funds, including money earmarked for expansion of the 710 Freeway to speed up idling diesel trucks.

"They're potentially opening up a Pandora's box that may jeopardize regional transportation funding" by delaying the process, said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the AQMD.

Air districts in the Coachella Valley, Atlanta and elsewhere have lost such funds for not setting vehicle emission levels in time, he said.

Wallerstein added that the local district would begin monitoring diesel particulate pollution on freeways this summer.

The EPA also rejected tougher motor vehicle emissions limits proposed by the local district and the state air board, Wallerstein said. He said suing to overturn the renegotiated levels could allow EPA to weaken them even further.

"The Bush administration has already tried to weaken these once," he said.

The measurements, known as "motor vehicle emissions budgets," were recently approved by the EPA for use in developing a sweeping regional clean air plan to meet federal air quality standards and acquire critical transportation project funding.

David Pettit, a senior attorney for the resources defense council, said the budgets overlook those most affected by these emissions. "Millions of people in and around Los Angeles breathe air so dirty it flunks federal standards."

"Those living near freeways breathe the dirtiest air," he said, "and EPA's own data show the cleanup plan it just approved won't protect them from risk of cancer, asthma and other diseases. That's against the law. . . . The clean air plan was designed to protect everyone, not just those lucky enough to escape the reach of deadly diesel fumes."

Angelo Logan of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice agreed with Pettit. During a tour of a neighborhood of modest stucco homes a stone's throw from the 710 Freeway in Commerce, he said, "It's as though they are saying the 1.5 million people who live along the freeways don't matter; that their lives aren't as valuable as other peoples'."

The home where Bob Eula, former mayor of Commerce, has lived for 65 years is framed by rail yards, the 710 Freeway and congested Washington Boulevard.

Standing in the shade of a pine tree in his frontyard, Eula nodded toward a column of soot rising from a nearby diesel-powered crane. "It's hell," he said.

"This whole neighborhood should be eliminated and its people moved to a safer place. Let the freeway and railroads have it."

Matt Haber, a spokesman for the EPA, acknowledged that "we don't have an answer yet" for protecting people who reside near freeways. "It's a huge issue in which science is not as good as it is for the general population," he said.

Studies have increasingly zeroed in on the harmful effects of diesel soot, especially fine particulates.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

janet.wilson@latimes.com

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