Let’s clear the air

Sacto breathing lessons:Want to learn more about air pollution in Sacramento and what’s being done about it? Log on to http://www.sparetheair.com. Most Sacramentans know the facts: Our home town’s air pollution problem has been classified as “severe” by federal regulators, and the air we breathe is consistently among the nation’s worst. What people in our community may not realize, however, is how ineffective the state’s oversight of pollution standards has been, and why the Legislature needs to do something about it.

The problem is the subject of a just-released report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), which finds serious shortcomings in the state’s regulatory system, including lax enforcement of air pollution laws and slap-on-the-wrist penalties for even serious violators.

The problem is that the state has no coherent standards regarding how laws should be enforced or what the penalties should be. The agency in charge, the Air Resources Board (ARB), has never adopted a statewide enforcement policy to guide the 35 local air districts that are in charge of regulating most industrial polluters. Amazingly, no minimum penalties exist for even serious repeat violators, and the local districts are not even required to report enforcement activities to the ARB.

The result is predictable: Standards vary from one area to the next, and polluters generally find there is no significant price to pay for fouling the air. Since no minimum penalties exist, many violators are simply issued a “notice to comply” asking them to correct the problem. Even when fines are levied, they’re simply not significant enough to cause polluters to change their way of doing business. Though penalties of up to $50,000 per day are possible, the average fine, according to the LAO, is about $800, with 75 percent of cases being settled for $500 or less.

Now, much of Sacramento’s air pollution problems arise from non-industrial sources, i.e. too many cars. But it’s outrageous that industrial polluters—which add plenty to our soupy air problems—are being treated with kid gloves. Clearly, air pollution standards must be consistently enforced, and there must be significant penalties for violating them, if we’re ever going to clear the air.

State lawmakers should act now to enhance the ARB’s direction of local districts. At the very least, a coherent statewide enforcement policy is needed, including mandatory minimum penalties for polluters. Local districts must be required to report violations and enforcement actions to the state, and the ARB should be given the clear authority to step in when local districts coddle polluters. That can only happen if state lawmakers get involved, and considering Sacramento Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg’s admirable leadership on this issue, we can’t think of a better person to lead the effort.