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Environmental Protection Agency to California: Clean up Your Act

In two separate actions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week put California on notice that the state is violating federal air and water quality standards, and must clean up its act.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter on September 23rd to California Air Resources Board (CARB) Chairman Mary Nichols notifying her that the EPA is taking action to eliminate California’s backlog of State Implementation Plans (SIPs). A SIP is a collection of policies and commitments used by a state, territory, or air quality district to reduce air pollution in areas that do not meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
 
“Since the 1970s, California has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act. California has the worst air quality in the United States, with 82 nonattainment areas and 34 million people living in areas that do not meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards—more than twice as many people as any other state in the country,” Administrator Wheeler writes.
 
EPA’s backlog of SIPs, many dating back decades, now totals 130—roughly one-third of the total SIP backlog for all states and jurisdictions. Such infractions are not trivial. California has not implemented its plans for the Coachella Valley 1997 and 2008 ozone NAAQS, Sacramento Metro 2008 ozone NAAQS, Western Nevada county 2008 ozone NAAQS, and Ventura County 1997 and 2008 ozone NAAQS.
 
Wheeler advises California to “withdraw its backlogged and un-approvable SIPs and work with the EPA to develop complete, approvable SIPs.” He cautions that failure to adopt an EPA-approved SIP “triggers statutory clocks for” highway funding sanctions, New Source Review permitting sanctions, and, ultimately, federal takeover of the state’s air quality planning responsibilities.
 
Note: There is apparently no statutory definition of “backlog.” Wheeler’s letter to Nichols says, “Most of these SIPs are inactive and appear to have fundamental issues related to approvability, state-requested holds, missing information or resources.” That suggests the backlog is all or chiefly California’s fault.
 
However, as reported in Inside EPA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) today asked EPA Inspector General Charles Sheehan to look into what she calls EPA’s “political interference…unfairly targeting” California. Among other issues, Feinstein urges Sheehan to determine whether the SIPs “are, in fact, backlogged as a result of inaction on the part of California jurisdictions.” In August 2016, my former CEI colleague William Yeatman wrote a detailed study of EPA’s failure to meet its statutory deadlines under the Clean Air Act.
 
On September 26th, Wheeler sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom detailing the state’s failure to meet Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. Some of the state’s water quality infractions are long standing. For example, San Francisco “routinely [discharges] more than one billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean on an annual basis.” The discharges “do not receive biological treatment,” as required by the CWA. In fact, sewer overflows do not always achieve the low standard of removing “floatables” from the sewage.
 
Chemical contamination is also a problem. In just the past quarter, EPA “identified 23 significant instances of discharges into waters of the United States in exceedance of permit limits.” For example, Los Angeles exceeded its permit limit for Indenolpyrene, a suspected carcinogen, by 420 percent.

EPA is also aware of “numerous recent health-based exceedances” of Safe Drinking Water Act standards. In the most recent reporting quarter of 2019, “California had 202 Community Water Systems with 665 health-based exceedances that put drinking the drinking water of nearly 800,000 residences at risk.”
 
California’s growing homelessness crisis, with reports of “piles of human feces” on sidewalks and streets in Los Angeles and San Francisco, are creating new health risks. Wheeler explains: “The EPA is concerned about potential water quality impacts from pathogens and other contaminants from untreated human waste entering nearby waters.”
 
Wheeler requests that Gov. Newsom provide a written response within 30 days “outlining in detail” how California intends to address the concerns and violations identified in his letter, and include a “demonstration” that the state has adequate authority and capability to achieve “specific anticipated milestones for correcting these problems.”
 
Here’s an easily achievable milestone: California will abstain from lecturing everybody else about how to save the planet until it cleans up its own back yard.