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

LOS ANGELES — 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,” 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. 

“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.

About the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.