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California’s AB 617: A New Frontier in Air Quality Management…if funded

Last week, Governor Brown signed AB 617—a law relating to criteria air pollutants and toxic air contaminants from sources other than vehicles. This new law, which passed alongside AB 398 extending California’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions, has the potential to make meaningful progress in reducing air pollution impacting disadvantaged communities and improving health outcomes. Rather than relying on greenhouse gas requirements to yield air quality improvements, the state tackles air quality concerns head-on. Specifically, making use of new air pollution monitoring technologies capable of detecting elevated exposures at a much more granular scale than the conventional ambient air quality monitors, AB 617 aims to establish a new community-scale emissions abatement program; updates air quality standards for certain stationary sources located in or contributing to non-attainment areas; provides for improved enforcement, and ensures community participation in the process. The one flaw appears to be insufficient funding.

Key features of the new community-scale air quality management program include:

Better community exposure data.

AB 617 requires the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to develop a monitoring plan for the state, and then select, based on the plan, the highest priority locations to deploy community air monitoring systems. Considerations in setting the priority locations include the presence of sensitive receptors like schools and hospitals, whether the community is disadvantaged, and whether there is a high degree of exposure to toxic air contaminants and criteria air pollutants. By July 1, 2019, air districts would be required to deploy monitoring systems in the selected locations, with data to be published on the CARB website. Air districts would also be authorized to require any stationary sources that emit air pollution in, or that materially affects the selected location, to deploy a fence-line monitoring system. Additional locations would be selected to deploy community air monitoring systems on an ongoing basis, by January 1, 2020, and every year thereafter, as appropriate based on the monitoring plan. The program also includes annual hearings to support continual improvements in implementing the network of community air monitoring systems.

Action to abate elevated pollution exposures in disadvantaged communities.

AB 617 requires CARB, by October 1, 2018, to prepare a statewide strategy to reduce emissions of toxic air contaminants and criteria pollutants in communities affected by a high cumulative exposure burden. Specifically, the bill requires CARB to select locations around the state to prepare community emissions reduction programs based on available modeling, monitoring and/or public health data. The bill also requires CARB to develop criteria for such programs.

Within one year, air districts that house such locations would need to adopt a community emissions reduction program consistent with the state strategy, and including emissions reduction targets, specific, cost-effective reduction measures, an implementation schedule and enforcement plan. These programs should include measures for reducing emissions from the contributing sources or categories of sources, including, but not limited to, stationary and mobile sources. CARB must approve these plans.

Ensuring continuous progress towards fulfilling the statewide strategy, every year, CARB is required to select additional locations with high cumulative exposures for participation in the program. The legislation further requires CARB to update the state-wide strategy at least once every five years.

Community participation in the process.

CARB is required to consult with environmental justice organizations, affected industry and other stakeholders in preparing the state-wide strategy, including holding at least three public workshops in different parts of the state. Air districts must similarly consult with CARB, individuals, community-based organizations, affected sources and local government in developing the community emissions reduction program.

New mandates to update stationary source pollution control standards for criteria air pollutants.

AB 617 requires air districts that are in nonattainment to adopt an expedited schedule to implement best available retrofit control technology (BARCT) for existing sources of air pollution that were covered by a market-based control program as of January 1, 2017 and where such standards have not been updated within the last decade. The law offers compliance flexibility in how the standards are met. AB 617 would also enhance consistency of regulatory standards by requiring the state board to establish and maintain a statewide clearinghouse for the technologies used across the state to define the best available control technology (for new sources that emit criteria air pollutants), BARCT, and for related technologies for the control of toxic air contaminants.

Improved compliance and enforcement.  

Enforceable by the air district and by CARB, AB 617 increases the maximum criminal and civil penalties and requires affected air districts to prepare annual reports describing actions taken and results.

An unfunded mandate?

AB 617 requires CARB to provide grants to community-based organizations for technical assistance and to support community participation. However, the provision of new funding to air districts to establish monitoring systems and develop and implement community emissions reduction programs remains uncertain at best. The law indicates that no reimbursement is required because a local agency has the authority to levy service charges, fees, or assessments. Reimbursement would only be provided if the Commission on State Mandates determines the act contains mandated costs.

This new law establishes core elements of a bold new system that has the potential to rapidly address elevated exposures and improve health outcomes in disadvantaged communities. The program directs new monitoring and emissions control mandates to the communities that need them the most. This targeted approach not only helps the impacted communities and makes real progress towards the state’s goal to provide a decent home and suitable living environment for every Californian, but it also helps minimize costs to industry and businesses in the state.

The main uncertainty in the plan is the lack of dedicated funding. In order to realize the benefits of this program and truly meet the needs of the disadvantaged communities the law is meant to serve, there must be sufficient and ongoing financial resources. Absent the funds required for monitoring, stakeholder engagement and program implementation, there will be strong resistance to the community designations that are central to the program, and like other unfunded mandates before it, this effort will be doomed to failure. As a next step, the state legislature must show real leadership by not only designing a groundbreaking program, but by providing the resources required to make it succeed.

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CCAP worked with the Center for Environmental Public Policy at UC Berkeley to bring policy makers, environmental justice advocates and stakeholders from across California together as part of the Environmental Justice and Climate Policy Solutions Dialogue. The dialogue discussions focused on air quality abatement strategies, including:

  • The opportunity presented by emerging low-cost sensor technologies to detect elevated pollution exposures, identify the contributing sources, and provide a catalyst and a platform for community engagement towards eliminating emissions hotspots;
  • Approaches to abating elevated air pollution exposures from all sources in disadvantaged communities through a collaborative effort combining community engagement, regulation, and incentive financing;
  • Strategies to reduce emissions from heavy duty vehicles through enhanced regulation of facilities like warehouses and marine terminals and through model state-of-the-art design rules for such facilities; and
  • Strategies to encourage air districts to use the full extent of existing and new authority and financing incentives to abate air pollution hotspots.

See the Executive Summary and Full Report for more details on the CEPP project team’s recommendations for a new localized program to address emissions hotspots. The full report offers guidance that will be helpful as CARB and air districts work towards implementation.

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