Environmentalists Evan Gillespie and Adrian Martinez were nervous as they watched as board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District debated whether to pass new, controversial rules on air pollution from warehouses.
"This is very stressful," tweeted Gillespie, who works for the Sierra Club.
"I know," replied Martinez, an attorney for Earthjustice, adding a GIF of a muppet hyperventilating into a paper bag.
The air quality in the greater Los Angeles area has stayed stubbornly poor. The region has the worst smog in the country and violates federal clean air act standards nearly half the time.
Truck pollution plays an outsized role in that pollution. Here's a look at the breakdown:
For years, environmentalists have been asking the air district board to crack down on truck pollution by targeting the warehouses they visit. Until now, the board had always declined to do so.
On Friday, the environmentalists got their wish. A sharply divided AQMD board voted 7-6 to direct its staff to develop rules regulating truck pollution by targeting the warehouses they visit.
The vote broke down along political and geographic lines. Democrats, representatives of L.A. County and board members appointed by state officials voted in favor of the new rules, called "indirect source rules." Republicans and representatives of the Inland Empire fiercely opposed the proposal.
The vote amounted to something of a referendum on the board’s entire purpose. The agency that became the AQMD was founded in 1947, 23 years before the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It was the country’s first local agency dedicated to cleaning up the air.
Board member Joseph Lyou, the executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air, called Friday's vote a "bellwether moment for our agency."
"It’s less about a question of whether we adopt new regulations. This is about who we are as an agency," he said. "The question is whether we’re willing to make those tough decisions that we know we’ll be criticized for, but are necessary and are the right thing to do."
"We were created for this particular purpose," said board member Clark Parker, a Democrat, echoing the historic importance of the vote. "We weren’t created to just go along and get along. We were created to take a stand, and say air quality is our mandate."
Republicans, however, were adamant that regulating diesel trucks is not the agency’s prerogative. They pointed out that only the federal EPA has the authority to set emissions standards for diesel trucks. California can regulate trucks that are registered in the state, but those vehicles only make up a small percentage of the total trucks on California’s highways.
"Using the indirect source rule to solve a problem that the federal government isn’t willing to step up do, which is to regulate trucks, is not a good idea," said board member Larry McCallon, the mayor of Highland in San Bernardino County.
Another board member, San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, urged the board to focus on incentivizing the development of even cleaner, lower-emitting trucks, something the board has already spent millions of dollars on in the past. She said the logistics industry is the lifeblood of the Inland Empire, accounting for the majority of new jobs created since the Great Recession.
"The proper role of this board is to incentivize that technology that will ultimately clean our air, not to kill the economy of the Inland Empire," she said, to boos from the audience.
The tie-breaker was L.A. City Council member Joe Buscaino, who represents San Pedro and Wilmington. For him, the vote was very personal.
"I’m a son of the Port of Los Angeles," he said, adding that his mother and father had emigrated from Italy to fish and work in the country’s largest port. "It’s an economic engine, but we need to remind ourselves that we should not choke on that engine," he said.
Buscaino went on to talk about all his friends and relatives who work in the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. He then began listing a number of women in his family who have cancer, and highlighted the elevated rates of asthma among people living near the ports. The trucks that deliver goods to warehouses in the Inland Empire pick up those products at the ports.
"We’ve benefitted, we’ve also suffered from the impacts of this amazing engine," said Buscaino.
It was Buscaino who submitted the motion to create new rules on warehouses, something he said he had discussed at length with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
HOW THE RULE WOULD WORK
Agency staff has floated some ideas, including requiring warehouses to install chargers for electric trucks. Another idea: mandating that a certain percentage of the trucks servicing warehouses exceed California’s emissions standards.
To get a sense of the scope of the warehousing boom in the Inland Empire, climb halfway up the green, rocky Jurupa Hills in South Fontana and look north towards the San Bernardino Mountains. Clusters of homes with red tiled roofs end abruptly against a wall of white distribution and logistics warehouses. Thousands of diesel trucks pull in and out of those warehouses every day.
"You look at these warehouses, they don’t have smokestacks coming out," said Allen Hernandez, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. "They are not emitting all the pollution. However, they draw pollution.
This is why the SCAQMD is proposing to make warehouses responsible for those trucks’ emissions under what's called an "indirect source rule." According to the agency’s proposal, which is still missing key details, warehouse owners would have to make sure that the fleet of trucks visiting their facilities are cleaner than state emission standards.
Nothing surprisingly, warehouse operators are not happy.
"It would be akin to Vons or Whole Foods telling their customers you can only shop at their store if you’re willing to drive a Chevy Volt there," said Thomas Jelenic, the vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.
Big new residential and commercial developments and rail yards would have similar requirements, except their rules would apply to emissions from construction equipment and trains.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?
The air has gotten a lot cleaner in Southern California over the past half century, but it's still considered unhealthy nearly 40 percent of the time. The region is also quickly running up against a 2023 deadline come into compliance with federal Clean Air Act standards for smog or face the loss of millions of dollars in federal transportation funding.
Most of the easy emission reductions have already been made. Passenger cars now have catalytic converters. Most power plants smoke stacks have scrubbers to remove smog-forming pollutants. Many city buses run on natural gas, and diesel trucks are far cleaner than they used to be, thanks to federal engine standards that took effect in 2007. Yet the region still violates air standards. That’s why air officials are turning to reductions that have been more difficult to achieve.
"We’ll adopt rules on industry that get tenths of tons of emissions reductions, instead of tons of emission reductions," said Tom Jordan, the senior policy advisor with San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which passed the state's first-ever indirect source rule in the mid-2000s.
If the South Coast follows suit, it would be just the second air district in the state, and likely the country, to use this back-door approach to regulating warehouses and new developments as a way of reducing emissions from trucks.
BUT IS IT LEGAL?
"We knew we would get sued," said Jordan.
Indeed, the National Association of Home Builders immediately took the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to court after it passed its indirect source rule. The home builders argued that the district was overstepping its legal authority by regulating emissions from trucks and construction equipment — which they argued was the purview of the federal EPA,not a local air agency. But the courts disagreed, finding that local air districts can, in fact, make warehouses and developers responsible for vehicle emissions.
"We absolutely are convinced air districts have clear authority to do these types of regulations," said Cynthia Martin, chief of the Transportation and Toxics Division with the California Air Resources Board.
People threatened by the rule, however, still have their doubts.
"Using the indirect source rule to solve a problem that the federal government isn't willing to step up to do, which is regulate the trucks, is not a good idea," said Larry McCallon, the mayor of the Inland Empire city of Highland and a member of the SCAQMD board, at a February public hearing about the proposal. "It’s going cost us jobs in the Inland Empire, and it will ruin our economy."
WHAT DOES THE WAREHOUSING INDUSTRY THINK?
"I still think it’s crazy," said B.J. Patterson, who owns two small distribution warehouses in Ontario, the city with the dubious distinction of having the dirtiest air in Southern California.
Patterson's job is to package other people's goods for distribution, and because of this, he claims he has no control over the 12,500 trucks that come to his warehouses every year. Most of the time, the truck drivers are hired by the company that manufactures the product he distributes or the company that imports it from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
"We’re gonna shut down, or we’re going to lay people off," he said, standing on the floor of Pacific Mountain Logistics, the company he founded in 2009. "This is not a business that has a huge margin in it. And everybody wants their goods for inexpensive."
He’s worried that the proposed rules would put him at a competitive disadvantage with distribution centers outside the region, because they would only apply to warehouses in Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Orange Counties. If passed, he predicts an exodus of warehouses to Las Vegas, the Central Valley and other areas outside SCAQMD's reach.
"It’s not going to solve anything," he said. "It’s just going to move the problem."
WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE LIVING NEXT DOOR TO WAREHOUSES?
Head to the Riverside County community of Mira Loma, and it is immediately evident why air regulators want to do more to reduce pollution from the logistics industry. This is where Anna Gallegos has lived for 22 years. Her neighborhood is bounded by the 60 freeway, a massive office park, warehouses and an empty field that the city of Jurupa Valley could soon turn into even more warehouses.
"Somebody wasn’t thinking too swift," she said, standing in her noisy front yard, about the decision to build warehouses so close to a neighborhood. "I mean, common sense! There’s going to be traffic! There’s going to be a lot of diesels! The people that live here are going to get sick eventually."
Research confirms this. According to the USC Children's Health Study, which has followed children living in polluted neighborhoods in Southern California for 26 years, kids who grow up breathing air contaminated with vehicle emissions and other fossil fuel pollution are worse off than kids who grow up in cleaner areas. They are more likely to have weak or under-developed lungs and more likely to have asthma.
"We have no information to suggest they ever catch up," said Ed Avol, a professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine and co-founder of the Children's Health Study. "So if they get behind and never get that maximum lung growth early in life, it looks like that is permanently lost."
In 2013, residents of Mira Loma, along with Hernandez's environmental group, won a lawsuit against the city of Jurupa Valley and Riverside County over a proposed new warehouse complex. Everyone was awarded air filters. But there are many places like Mira Loma Village without such protections.
"We have Bloomington, we have Rialto, Colton, Moreno Valley, Riverside," Hernandez said. "It's a region wide problem."
If the SCAQMD board doesn't pass the rules, "it won't be the end of this fight," he said. "You can't be polluting and not be held accountable."
May 4, 11:15 a.m.: This article updated with the vote.
1 p.m.: This article was updated with the scene from the vote and additional background.
This story originally published on May 3. Dr. Clark Parker's name was corrected on May 7.
This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.