Could lawsuits clear the air around Inland warehouses? – The Press-Enterprise

Warehouses are seen stretching into the horizon near Nevada and San Bernardino avenues in Redlands in 2021. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, The Orange County Register/SCNG)

The power to enforce a rule intended to slash air pollution associated with warehouses could one day rest in the hands of citizens who are willing to go to federal court.

Several Inland members of Congress recently signed a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking it to add the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s rule to a larger set of air quality regulations known as a State Implementation Plan.

If that happens, citizens could sue in federal court to enforce the rule, provided they notify various government agencies and those agencies aren’t pursuing enforcement on their own, according to air district spokesperson Connie Mejia.

The program set up by the air quality district to enforce what’s known as the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule “is a major step towards addressing one of the largest sources of emissions in Southern California,” read the Nov. 13 letter signed by Reps. Mark Takano, D-Riverside; Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert; and Pete Aguilar, D-San Bernardino.

“As the Congressional members whose districts are affected by warehouse-related air pollution, we respectfully urge EPA to consider the health and quality of life of the vulnerable communities within the Southern California Air Basin” and approve the rule.

EPA administrators support adding the rule.

“I have travelled to the Inland Empire and throughout the South Coast and seen first-hand how Black and Brown communities are bearing the brunt of goods moving through our country, with damaging impacts such as asthma, missed days of school or work, and increased medical bills,” EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman said in an October news release.

“This rule is an essential step toward protecting Californians that continue to shoulder a large burden of air pollution for all of us.”

Thanks to its proximity to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, its nexus of interstates and freight rail lines, plenty of flat, cheap and vacant land and a blue-collar workforce, the Inland Empire has become a major logistics hub, with an estimated 1 billion square feet of sleek-walled warehouses — many 1 million square feet or larger — filling the horizon and employing thousands of workers.

Logistics advocates laud the industry’s role as the Inland Empire’s economic backdown. Industry growth, fueled by an online shopping boom that went on steroids during the COVID-19 pandemic, provides paths to college degrees and bigger paychecks for warehouse workers, who support non-logistics jobs through their earnings, advocates say.

Supplying those warehouses are a steady stream of diesel-powered tractor trailers. Emissions from those trucks are blamed for the region’s notoriously poor air quality as they “increase the risk of development of childhood asthma and increased risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke in adults,” the letter from Takano, Ruiz and Aguilar states.

Four million Californians, including more than 250,000 children under the age of 5, live within half a mile of a warehouse, the letter read. Those communities tend to have high concentrations of Black, Latino and Asian people and families living below the federal poverty line, the letter added.

To clear the air of diesel exhaust, the governing board of air quality district, a multi-government alliance covering Orange County and the urban parts of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, approved the indirect source rule in 2021.

It sets up a system in which warehouses choose from a menu of options — installing rooftop solar panels and using zero-emission or near-zero emission trucks, for example — to score a required number of annual points based on calculations involving the number of truck trips a warehouse generates.

In lieu of earning points, warehouse owners can pay a mitigation fee that’s used to buy clean trucks, electric vehicle charging stations and clean fuel infrastructure in communities near the warehouse that paid the fee.

In September, the air quality district announced it would step up enforcing the rule. At the time, officials said more than 1,400 of the 2,000 warehouses subject to the rule were not in compliance.

It’s not clear when the air quality district’s rule might be added to the EPA’s State Implementation Plan.


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