Trump Administration Tackles California Air Quality, Threatens State’s Federal Highway Funds

Published November 8, 2019

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to California’s agency charged with ensuring the state’s air quality warning the state could face federal sanctions, including the withholding of federal highway funds, if it did not rapidly address its decades old failure to submit complete reports detailing its plans for how it would reduce air pollution to levels required in the 1970 Clean Air Act.

In a September 24 letter to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the EPA, wrote California has the worst air quality in the United States and has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the federal law, submitting state implementation plans for areas in the California with levels of regulated air pollutants exceeding federal standards.

The Clean Air Act requires states to submit implementation plans to the EPA for approval outlining their efforts to cut emissions of six types of pollutants. When President Donald Trump entered office, the administration faced a backlog of over 700 incomplete or out of date reports, and EPA says approximately one-third of the areas still having incomplete or out of date plans, roughly 140, are in California.

According to EPA’s data, California contains 82 areas, in which 34 million people reside, with pollution levels exceeding federal standards for one or more regulated pollutants.

Comply or Face Consequences

EPA gave California until October 10 to rescind their “incomplete” plans and resubmit new reports addressing the areas in non-compliance for air quality, waring inaction will result in “disapproval,” of their plans triggering sanctions clocks that could penalize the state with cuts to highway funding, and allow the federal government to impose an implementation plan of its own.

At this writing, California has failed to comply with EPA’s demand for completed state implementation plans for its areas in non-compliance.

Any penalty involving the loss of highway funds would be steep for California since it receives more highway funds than any other state in the country. The Federal Highway Administration estimates California will have received more than $19 billion from the Federal Highway Administration between fiscal years 2016 and 2020.

“We certainly want to avoid these statutory triggers, but our foremost concern must ensuring clean air for all Americans,” said Wheeler’s letter. “That is our goal.”

At present only about a dozen of California’s 58 counties meet the EPA’s standards for Ozone air quality. About half meet the standards for fine particulate matter in the air, such as dust, smoke or other inhalable particles. The counties meeting both standards are primarily rural and sparsely populated.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.