Southern California air quality officials adopted a plan Friday to allow industry to expand in the Los Angeles region by tapping into a public fund of free pollution credits.
Environmentalists said the plan would add to the region's smog and soot problems and open the way for new gas-fired power plants to be built in an already overloaded air basin.
"This vote reverses decades of steady progress we've made to combat chronic air pollution," said Adrian Martinez, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Millions of people will find it harder to breathe, harder to see the horizon and harder to play outside with their kids on smog-filled days."
But the South Coast Air Quality Management District board said that, as of now, credits would be given only to small businesses and public facilities such as police departments and water treatment plants. The program was adopted on a 10-1 vote.
Environmentalists' demands that the district issue fewer credits "would severely limit growth," said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood. He added that the district's plan "allows for some growth and at the same time allows us to meet clean-air standards."
The AQMD board, made up mainly of elected officials from local jurisdictions, has battled local health groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a decade over the integrity of its pollution trading system.
In 2002, the EPA charged the district with improperly accounting for the value of its credits and with giving out more credits than it had banked. In 2008, after the district sought to bank credits from as far back as the early 1990s, a state court struck down the program, saying the AQMD had failed to assess the effect on the region's air pollution.
In 2009, the state Legislature, after heavy lobbying from electrical utilities, enacted two laws to circumvent the court ruling. One explicitly authorized the proposed Sentinel power plant near Palm Desert to use credits banked for use by public facilities.
The other 2009 law allowed the district to establish new credits — as it did Friday — despite the court's ruling that it must further explain the pollution impact. Environmentalists are battling the AQMD in federal court over that issue.
"Will the South Coast Basin ever attain healthy air — that's the question," said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney for California Communities Against Toxics, a statewide coalition. "If so, the district must stop subsidizing fossil fuels, which cause thousands of deaths from air pollution."