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In the Midst of the Coronavirus, CA Weighs Diesel Regulations

Communities that live in the shadow of industry are hit hard by pollution, and by Covid-19. But companies are using the pandemic to try to delay stricter rules.

Trucks drive by San Bernardino, California. Diesel exhaust is the single leading factor responsible for California’s cancer risk related to toxic air contaminants. Courtesy of Anthony Victoria/Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.

June 9, 2020

Every day, nearly 18,000 diesel-powered trucks barrel along State Route 60 in Jurupa Valley, a small city 45 miles east of Los Angeles. The trucks come and go from over 40 square miles of warehouse space in the area, but a blanket of smog lingers behind.

“The air, the pollution just sits there,” Brenda Angulo, a kindergarten teacher, said. Her students breathe in that “layer of thick, brown sky.”

Angulo’s school sits in what health experts call a “diesel death zone,” an area in the shadow of a port or trucking artery where people are subject to the noxious mix of more than 40 toxic air contaminants produced when diesel combusts—including fine particulate matter so small it permeates the deepest parts of the lungs.

In the short term, breathing in the exhaust can cause headaches, nausea and asthma attacks. Long-term, it can cause serious allergies, cardiopulmonary diseases, cancer and premature death. Diesel exhaust is the single leading factor responsible for California’s cancer risk related to toxic air contaminants.

Nationwide, a bitter debate is raging over how the government should approach environmental regulation during the coronavirus pandemic. When the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would abandon enforcement efforts during the public health crisis, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and eight other state attorneys general sued the EPA.

But the same debate is playing out within California itself, a place that’s both on the bleeding edge of environmental regulation and home to the five worst cities in the country for year-round particle pollution, as ranked by the American Lung Association. Now California’s freight and oil industries are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to try to delay two proposed regulations that would limit diesel exhaust throughout the state, sparking outrage from clean air advocates.

In December, Angulo traveled from her home in the Inland Empire, a working class community in the valleys east of Los Angeles, to Sacramento. She stood before the California Air Resources Board (CARB) wearing a bright orange “Stop Diesel Death” sticker. She was there for a public hearing on one of the regulations in question: the Advanced Clean Trucks Rule, which would mandate that truck manufacturers sell an increasing percentage of zero-emission, as opposed to diesel-powered, trucks, starting with 2024 models. The other key rule, an update to the existing At-Berth Regulations, would require oil tankers and car carriers to reduce emissions from their diesel generators while docked at California ports beginning in 2024.

It was Angulo’s first time speaking before a state agency. Following dozens of public health experts and environmental scientists who advocated for stronger regulations, Angulo took the microphone. She rushed through her remarks at first, feeling a little intimidated before the board. But then she settled, telling them that the sky her students see outside the classroom windows looks nothing like the bright blue sky in the picture books she reads to them.

“We have days where we cannot go outside due to air quality,” she said in the hearing. “We have days where students must walk instead of run in order to make sure that they do not exacerbate their asthma symptoms.” Speaking for her kindergarteners and broader community, she urged CARB to strengthen the Advanced Clean Trucks Rule. After she and others from Riverside and San Bernardino counties spoke, the audience broke into applause.

The freight and oil industries weighed in, too: the timelines were overambitious, they said, the regulations would stunt economic growth and the technology and the infrastructure weren’t there yet.

Drawing on the public comments on health, the economy, the environment and climate—black carbon, like the soot in diesel exhaust, is a significant contributor to climate change, second only to carbon dioxide emissions—CARB staff rewrote the proposed rules to be more aggressive. The board expected to vote to finalize the updated At-Berth Regulations in April, and the Advanced Clean Trucks Rule in May.

Industry Pleads for a Delay

Then the coronavirus struck. Immediately after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s shelter-in-place order on March 19, industry and business-friendly lawmakers launched a counterattack. Capitalizing on the public health crisis, they made sweeping requests for regulatory relief, pressing CARB to abandon the proposed regulations for at least six months.

On March 20, the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade group representing 13 oil companies worth just shy of $1 trillion, joined with other industry groups to send a letter to the California EPA and CARB. They argued that as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, “it will be impossible for the regulated community” to participate in the rulemaking process. Yet WSPA, the biggest spender on lobbying in the state, has managed to submit reams of public comment since the onset of the pandemic.

Four days later, the California Association of Port Authorities and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union sent another letter to the California EPA and CARB, asking the board to delay the regulatory process for ships at-berth until January 2021.

“This is an unprecedented time in our lives,” Gene Seroka, chairman of the association and executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said in an interview. “We’ll get to the work of being even more aggressive on cleaning the air as we move forward through our very slow and methodical economic reemergence.”

Clean air proponents have cried foul. “There’s a renewed lobbying effort to use the cover of Covid-19 as a way to sow doubt and try to delay and derail progress on clean air rules,” said Will Barrett, Director of Clean Air Advocacy for the American Lung Association in California. “They’re ratcheting up the rhetoric around the current crisis.”

Before the coronavirus, the fight over the two diesel exhaust regulations seemed much like any other, with industry pitted against public health advocates and environmentalists at each step of the long, slow grind of public policy making. Now that Covid-19 is ravaging the lungs of people across the country, however, the stakes are even higher.

Preliminary studies in the United States, China and Europe have found that people exposed to higher levels of air pollution, like diesel exhaust, have worse Covid-19 outcomes. A national study by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found they were 8 percent more likely to die after contracting the virus.

CARB is in the process of conducting its own study in California to better understand the possible links between prolonged exposure to air pollution and Covid-19 hospitalizations, intensive care stays and mortality, but the initial indications from around the world are clear: people who have been breathing dirty air for years appear to be hit harder by the new disease.

For people living in freight transportation hubs, the link between pollution and disease is cause for concern. Even before the pandemic, many were plagued by chronic conditions caused by breathing in diesel exhaust.

Living in the Shadow of Industry

In the South Coast Air Basin—California’s most diesel exhaust-polluted airshed—ships offload their cargo of containers, cars and crude oil at the sprawling Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. The dense cloud of exhaust from their auxiliary diesel generators hovers long after the ships are gone. Much of the cargo is loaded onto trains and trucks and transported to the Inland Empire—known as “America’s Shopping Cart”—where it’s warehoused and distributed across the country.

Prevailing winds blow east, so dirty air from the port and the city of Los Angeles follows the same path as the containers, wafting into the valleys of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. There, it mixes with diesel exhaust from the trucks speeding past Angulo’s classroom.

Maria Reyes, a community organizer and mother of three in West Long Beach, which has one of the highest levels of diesel pollution in the state, says people in her community are afraid. In Los Angeles County, there have been over 43,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and over 2,000 deaths. “Especially right now, during the crisis of Covid-19, our community is more susceptible to this disease,” Reyes said, speaking through a Spanish translator. Many of her friends and family have preexisting conditions from breathing polluted air.

For years, the freight industry has outsourced costs to communities like West Long Beach. “The people who are living in the shadow of these major industrial sources, the ports, the warehouses, the freeways that ship products across the country,” Barrett said, “those people are subsidizing those costs with their lungs.”

Reyes sees the push to pause regulations as “a form of environmental discrimination,” she said. Diesel exhaust disproportionately affects minority communities with fewer resources. “We are the people who can’t leave this place. We can’t move away,” she said.

The same applies to Angulo’s kindergarteners and their parents, many of whom are warehouse workers and truck drivers. Diesel particulate takes an even greater toll on young children; they have faster metabolisms and faster breathing rates than adults, so they get a more potent dose of whatever is in the air. Prolonged exposure to diesel exhaust can harm their lung development, permanently reducing their lung capacity. But families can’t just leave their homes and jobs. That’s why it is so urgent that CARB implement these regulations, Angulo said, adding, “These are lives of students,” she said, “the lives of children.”

‘We Can’t Pause’

Industry and business-friendly lawmakers have a different concern: the economic crash unleashed by the pandemic.

On April 21, a bipartisan group of state legislators sent a letter to CARB echoing industry talking points. Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat who represents Reyes in Long Beach, was one of 31 lawmakers who signed the letter asking CARB to “put all current and proposed rulemakings regarding freight transportation” on hold until January.

“We need to take into account the economic cycles as to how far we push these regulations,” O’Donnell said. “Companies need to make green while they go green.”

Democratic Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, whose district includes the part of the Inland Empire where Angulo lives, isn’t buying it. She and 36 other state lawmakers sent a letter of their own to Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 27, pressing him to continue advancing environmental and public health protections. “When your industry and the way you are managing your industry is causing severe harm to others, we can’t pause,” Reyes said in an interview. “We have to continue moving forward.”

CARB has estimated that implementing the updated At-Berth Regulations will cost $2.40 billion, compared to $2.44 billion in public health savings over the next 11 years.

CARB was supposed to finalize both regulations this spring, but they opted to extend the public comment period because of the pandemic. The board will now vote on the Advanced Clean Trucks Rule in late June, and the updated At-Berth Regulations in July or August. “It’s not in anybody’s interest to just roll forward without all the input you need,” Mary Nichols, CARB’s Chair, said.

Nichols acknowledges the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, but thinks the two regulations are more important now than ever before. That’s because, as the federal government invests trillions of dollars in an attempt to wrench the economy out of its present nosedive, industry is facing decisions about how to use that money—will it use the taxpayer dollars to continue business as usual, or will it invest in cleaner and healthier infrastructure going forward?

“We were already talking, before Covid hit us, about the need for major changes in our energy and transportation systems in order to address air pollution and global climate crises,” Nichols said. “The notion that you should just leave everything as it was is not acceptable for many reasons.”

As we rebuild the economy, “Why would we think about not doing it right?” she asked. “We should build it right.”


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