Environmental Groups, SCAQMD Reach Settlement to Adopt Rule that Could Financially Penalize Major Polluters


Major polluters could finally be held responsible for Southern California’s dirty air


Miranda Fox, Earthjustice, mfox@earthjustice.org, 415-283-2324

In a major win for polluter accountability, a legal settlement announced today will require the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) to adopt a rule that could fine polluters for their emissions contributing to the region’s poor air quality. Plaintiffs estimate that a fee rule could result in SCAQMD collecting over $25 million annually from major polluters. Groups will advocate that any fees collected go back to benefit communities that have been disproportionately burdened by pollution.

Groups including Earthjustice, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, People’s Collective for Environmental Justice, Communities for a Better Environment and the Sierra Club filed the deadline suit against SCAQMD and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 2023, after decades of failing to comply with national ozone standards. They alleged the SCAQMD was violating the Clean Air Act by failing to properly regulate major contributors to ozone pollution.

According to a 2018 report from SCAQMD, the agency failed to collect nearly $40 million in fees from top-emitting facilities in 2018 alone. Under the settlement, SCAQMD will have to adopt a rule by November 2024 that should require major producers of NOx and VOCs to either have to pay fees or reduce their emissions by 20 percent.

“Community members throughout Los Angeles County, like those in Wilmington and Southeast LA, are heavily impacted by toxic facilities and refineries that emit harmful pollutants and tons of VOC’s. It’s unconscionable that AQMD has failed to enforce the law that is supposed to be there to protect the most vulnerable neighborhoods in their jurisdiction,” said Milton Hernandez-Nimatuj, Southern California Program Director with Communities for a Better Environment. “AQMD agreeing to move forward with the fee rule is a great victory for communities who are suffering from disproportionate impacts of pollution due to a wide range of major industrial sources. We expect our air regulators to be proactive and to do their jobs because if regulators fail, communities will defend their right to clean air, water, and soil.”

Under terms of the settlement filed in federal district court for the Central District of California, SCAQMD agrees to adopt a fee rule by the end of 2024 that requires Southern California’s major polluters to pay an annual fee based on tons of emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — key contributors to smog formation. The fee rule would apply until emission levels decline by 20% or until air quality meets federal standards. CARB and SCAQMD also agree to host a workshop by the end of 2024 to instruct polluters, such as refineries, power plants, and industrial facilities, on pollution reduction methods to avoid fees.

“We are encouraged to see the SCAQMD hold polluters accountable and move forward in creating an ozone fee rule. All enforcement of polluters that often are not held responsible will undoubtedly benefit communities like ours. Inland Empire environmental justice communities are overburdened with some of the worst air pollution and the deadly impacts that entails and we cannot endure anymore. We need this rule to be enforced and continue to push for stronger regulations,” said Andrea Vidaurre, People’s Collective for Environmental Justice. 

“Major polluters in the South Coast air basin have avoided paying fees for adding ozone pollution to communities already overburdened with some of the worst air quality in the country,” said Nihal Shrinath, a Sierra Club attorney. “A fee rule will give these massive corporations a strong incentive to install the technology needed to curb emissions that have harmed residents for far too long.”

For years, Southern California has suffered from extreme ozone and fine particle pollution levels that fail to meet Environmental Protection Agency national air quality standards, resulting in some of the country’s most polluted air. Exposure to smog can cause severe respiratory and cardiovascular impacts.

“We are pleased that South Coast has agreed to a timeline to adopt this ozone fee rule,” said Adrian Martinez, an Earthjustice attorney. “Every summer, we experience the worst smog pollution in the nation. Advancing zero-emission technologies at these large, polluting facilities is a must-do to clean the air. We look forward to working with the South Coast to pass a rule that makes large polluters pay a fee when the air isn’t safe to breathe.”

Plaintiffs estimate that a fee rule could result in SCAQMD collecting over $25 million annually, and they hope to stay involved to ensure that such funds go to air quality improvement programs in heavily impacted communities to disincentivize uncontrolled pollution.

Kids play soccer near the Phillips 66 refinery in Wilmington, Calif.
Kids play soccer near the Phillips 66 refinery in Wilmington, Calif. (Hannah Benet for Earthjustice)

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