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California Regulation and Management of Air Quality

Breathing clean air is a basic human right; however, this act has been compromised beginning with the start of the industrial revolution. In the 1940s, smog was already an issue in areas of dense industrial and residential populations, namely Los Angeles. Even with the last sixty-plus years of implemented regulation, air quality continues to be a major issue in Los Angeles, Southern California, and throughout the entire globe. Granted, significant improvements have been adopted to combat the ever-growing air pollution due to increases in industrialization and our heavy dependence on fossil fuels, but the light at the end of the tunnel is but a glimmer. This is not to say that there is no hope for sustainable air quality; changing the manners in which society and industry function is and continues to be a difficult task; but it is essential for the preservation of the environment and the health of future generations.

Historical Background

Sustainability has become a political, somewhat manipulative trigger word in our society. Anything from dog food to economic policies can be tagged as “sustainable”, with obvious insinuations about the environment and the green revolution. Sustainable air quality is more complicated than most topics regarding the environment; it is directly caused by human actions and has a direct effect on human health. With this in mind, along with the fact that air quality is the sixth leading cause of death in America (Jacobson, 2008), it is no surprise that regulations on air quality on a federal level began with the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. This act did not have specified enforcement leverage but did provide funding to conduct research on how to better air quality, making it the first federal document to acknowledge the dangers of air pollution on human health and welfare. It left the states in charge of monitoring and controlling air pollution based on findings from research conducted in the 1930s and 1940s regarding harmful fuel emissions (“Origins”, 2010). In 1963, the Secretary of Health, Welfare, and Education was tasked with defining more clearly the air quality criteria; more funding was also given to local and state agencies with this additional legislation, called the Clean Air Act (CAA). The CAA was the replacement for the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. In 1965, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act was enacted to further define the air pollution emitted from vehicles in opposition to other point sources, such as factories. According to “Clean Air” (2010), just twenty years after California passed its first regulatory measure on air pollution, the Federal Air Quality Act of 1967 established “air quality control regions” based on land contours and topography (“Origins”, 2010). The most important piece of legislation to modern air quality regulations came in 1970 when President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by executive order. The Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) followed shortly after, and the basis on which today’s air quality is regulated was established.

Regulated Pollutants

Godish (2004) provides the six common air pollutants recognized and monitored by the EPA: particulate matter (PM) of sizes 2.5 μm and 10 μm, tropospheric ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and lead (Pb). These are commonly referred to as the six criteria pollutants, and are monitored due to their significant contributions to human health problems attributed to air pollution. They do not include emissions responsible for the greenhouse effect and global warming, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor. The two pollutants in most direct focus in Southern California, notably in this blog, are PM 2.5, PM 10, and O3. For more information on these pollutants, see the “Origins of PM and Ozone” section of this blog.


Most regulation of air pollutants is on the sources of the emissions. PM and ozone in Southern California, the focus of this blog, are mainly emitted from mobile sources – trucks, cars, boats, etc. PM and ozone, along with the other four criteria pollutants, are monitored by stations placed through a region, which require special technology funded by federal grants under the CAA. A key factor to note is that government agencies are not allowed to take cost into account when researching technologies to reduce emissions. For instance, when researching renewable energy avenues, cost can only be factored in after the environmental factors are completely weighed out (Jacobson, 2008). However, cost can be an important deciding factor when the government is running a deficit and in a recession. Interestingly, the recession also caused a slight reduction in emissions, as consumerism declined and less energy was used. The US EPA SCAQMD (2012) observes that when coupled, these two factors cancel each other out; however, the ramifications of the recent recession could reach far into the future, as the government is more reluctant to spend money on environmental concerns instead of focusing on economic policies.

Federal Regulation

Beginning with the Clean Air Act of 1970 (and subsequent revisions), federal legislation required the establishment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for criteria pollutants that must be enforced by the States Implementation Plans (SIPs). The CAA was amended again in 1977, when the “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” (PSD) and “Nonattainment Provisions” were added to the act. A major part of maintaining and bettering air quality is to take steps in order to not let things deteriorate even further. For areas that did not meet the NAAQS, a longer and more realistic timeline was set up with goals to meet the NAAQS (“Clean Air”, 2010). The difficulties that air pollution present stem from the constant emission of more and more pollutants. In order to even maintain current levels of pollution, significant steps must be made so that the air quality does not deteriorate even further with the addition of even more emissions. With this in mind, amendments were made once again in 1990, this time refocusing federal power onto controlling air pollutants and reducing acid rainfall (not quite relevant in Southern California) as well as ozone depletion. The latter will not be discussed in this blog, as it focuses mainly on tropospheric, not stratospheric ozone. The 1990 amendments introduced five goals for protecting human health and welfare:

  1. Mitigating potentially harmful human and ecosystem exposure to six criteria pollutants;

  2. Limiting the sources of and risks from exposure to HAPs, which are also called air toxics;

  3. Protecting and improving visibility impairment in wilderness areas and national parks;

  4. Reducing the emissions of species that cause acid rain, specifically SO2 and NOx;

  5. Curbing the use of chemicals that have the potential to deplete the stratospheric O3 layer. (“Clean Air”, 2010).

The role of the federal government is not to ensure the implementation of the air quality standards, but merely to present a uniform standard that the nation must meet or exceed. It is the role of state and local governments to comply with national regulations by means of their own implementation strategies. The federal government set up Air Quality Management Districts (AQMDs) throughout the nation in order to oversee the implementation and monitoring of air quality and its compliance with federal regulations.

Southern California State Regulation

California is split into a number of regions, each with their own AQMD. The South Coast AQMD (SCAQMD) is responsible for monitoring all of Orange County and the urban areas of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties (Atwood, 2012). This region notably has the worst air quality conditions, in terms of smog, in the United States. Needless to say, the federal regulations for PM and ozone have not been met on a consistent basis, and there is an action plan in the works to facilitate the compliance of Southern California with national air quality standards by 2030. Atwood (2012) explains, “For example, this year we’ve had 115 days exceeding the current ozone standard. Essentially this number has to be brought down to zero by 2030.” Even with this bleak news, the SCAQMD has managed to “cut the peak levels of air pollution over the last 20 years in half” (Atwood, 2012). These goals are outlined in the new 2012 Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP), in accordance with the SIPs required by federal legislation in the CAA. Although significant cuts in emissions have been made in the past few decades, an increase in population in the SCAQMD has made further reductions difficult, even though the area is far from compliance with federal standards. This warrants a drastic change over the next few decades in how the region produces energy and its reliance on vehicles and appliances that contribute greatly to air pollution. There is also significant concern that if serious measures are not implemented in the near future, Southern California will see a backslide in emissions reduction as the population along with its energy demand grows. Without changing the current technology, it becomes very difficult to reduce emissions when demand for the resources that produce emissions is increasing at a fast pace. In order to make sure this does not happen, the CAA mandates that new AQMPs be drafted every ~eighteen months; they must show “how we are going to get these targets of health standards” (Atwood, 2012). The major concern of the SCAMQD is not the direct environmental implications of severe air pollution, but its ramifications for human health and welfare.

The entire SCAQMD could not operate without its monitoring stations. These monitoring stations provide the data on which new regulatory action is based, as well as to judge the progress made thus far. The monitoring stations are the only indicator (besides asthma studies and other scientific exploratory probes into air quality-related human health issues) of the air pollutant concentrations and thus the conditions of air quality in the region. They are placed every five miles and provide snapshots of air pollutant levels, creating a sort of map throughout the Southern California region (Wunder & Atkins, 2012). Together, they can produce an idea of the level of pollution present at a given time by county and the results are posted on a real-time basis on their website: Please consult other sections of this blog to learn about specific monitoring techniques for ozone and PM.

The Ports: Local Regulation

The Port of LA and the Port of Long Beach work in conjunction to meet state air quality regulations with incentive-based programs and numerous goals of their own. An important point to note is that the port itself is not responsible for the majority of these emissions. The ports are “landlords” of sorts, meaning that the shipping companies lease space from them in order to conduct business (Wunder & Atkins, 2012). Although the ports are able to force certain regulations upon their tenants by putting clauses in their leases stipulating environmental considerations (and imposing consequences upon lease renewal if they are not followed), the ports have found that incentive-based programs are the most effective in realizing their goals. The latest revision to port goals is outlined in the 2006 Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP), which was developed by the two ports in conjunction with the SCAQMD and the EPA. There are seven key elements to the CAAP: standards and goals, implementation strategies, control measures, technology advancement program, infrastructure & operational efficiency improvements initiative, estimated emissions reductions, and estimated budget requirements (USA EPA Port of LA & Port of Long Beach, 2006).

The ports focus on two mobile sources of emissions: on-shore transportation of goods (namely trucks) and ocean-going vessels. According to the “CTP fact sheet” (2012), the Clean Truck Program is an incentive-based program designed to reduce emissions by financially assisting truck owners in replacing their vehicles with more efficient trucks. It has accomplished the reduction of emission by 90% in comparison with the previous fleet of trucks. As of 2008, all pre-1989 trucks were not allowed to enter the port, and January 2012 saw the successful goal completion of having all trucks entering the port meet the “Clean Truck” EPA standard. The Clean Truck Program is a huge success of the ports’ efforts and has reduced emissions greatly in the Southern California air basin by removing more than forty tons of diesel PM per year previously emitted by these trucks. The other significant source of emissions in the ports is the ocean vessels coming in from around the world. International regulations are the number one priority in this respect, but the ports offer incentive-based programs once again to accomplish further reduction of emissions beyond international efforts. Insert international regulations/conferences? There are three main efforts being exercised by the ports in emission reduction: ship fuel change, vessel speed reduction, and auxiliary power switch to shore power. Ocean-going vessels (OGVs) make up more than half of the ports’ air emissions and are the main contributor to air pollution in Southern California. In order to more closely monitor their emissions, the Port of LA established the Environmental Ship Index Incentive Program, under the direction of Carter Atkins. Atkins (2012) relayed that this program, started in July 2012, gives ships registered with the program scores based on ship type and the type of fuel being burned. These scores transfer over to three incentive programs, which are tiered levels of incentives based on what type of fuel is being burned and how efficient the engine is, as well as whether new technology is being demonstrated by a shipping company. The Vessel Speed Reduction (VSR) Program is the second major program directly aimed at reducing air emissions from OGVs. For the safety of marine mammals and in the interest of fuel conservation (in order to reduce emissions), vessels are now strongly advised to reduce their speed to twelve knots within forty nautical miles of shore (Wunder & Atkins, 2012). This program is incentive-based as well, and follows the similar tiered structure as the Environmental Ship Index Incentive Program. The last program that the ports have enacted is Alternative Maritime Power (AMP). This program is very unique in that it actually provides an alternative energy source for ships that are docked and unloading. Instead of using auxiliary engines to supply power to ships when they are stationary at port, ships utilize technology that allows them to plug into onshore electricity. The ports’ goals for this program are ambitious: 50% of power required to be onshore electricity by 2014, 80% by 2020 (“Alternative”, 2011). Wunder (2012) also recognized the fossil fuel emissions associated with electricity, and mentioned plans of solar and wind technology research in order to shift away from diesel as OGVs’ main source of energy. The current solar project directly associated with the ports’ energy consumption has an output of 2.4 MW (Wunder & Atkins, 2012).

The ports have been successful thus far, reducing emissions by 75% from 2005 (Kanter, 2012). However, it will only become more difficult, especially since the eventual goal is zero emission of criteria pollutants from the ports. Bureaucratic barriers such as state ratification of regulations suggested by the ports are a realized concern; however, the ports are key in providing an example of progressive air quality standards in Southern California.


Air quality standards on a federal, state, and local level are all the same; yet drastically differ in realized results and methods of regulation. Federal legislation applies in all instances; however, it is really the states that leverage the power of enforcing such standards. Southern California has the worst air quality in the entirety of the United States; so it is no wonder that the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach strive to find new ways to bring air emissions down to meet federal standards. In Southern California, air quality has greatly increased even in the last five years, and it continues to become cleaner as stricter regulations come into play and industries finally realize that there is economic benefit to “going green”. At the ports alone, air emissions have decreased by 75% in the last seven years. Kanter (2012) speculates that if everything goes according to the plans in place, there is significant reason to believe that a zero-emissions future is not a myth, and is within reach. According to Wunder & Atkins (2012) as well as Kanter (2012), there are many things to look forward to with future regulations: the addition of more criteria pollutants such as black carbon, possible regulation of non-point sources, and the inevitable yet extremely complex regulation of carbon dioxide (CO2). Although these new avenues of regulation are exciting and yet to have been explored, they don’t take away from the great progress already made with the Clean Air Act and all of the efforts of federal, state, and local agencies alike. Air quality regulation has come a long way in the past sixty years, and it will hopefully become more prevalent in people’s minds as its successes multiply.


Alternative maritime power. (2011, February 24). Retrieved from

Atkins, C. (2012, July 01). Ocean-going vessel emission reduction. Retrieved from

Atwood, S. (2012, October 17). Interview by R. Tanner [Personal Interview]. South coast AQMD air quality interview.

The clean air act. (2010, January 29). Retrieved from

CTP fact sheet. (2012, January 01). Retrieved from

Fawcett, J., Dr. (2012, October 16). Interview by R. Tanner [Personal Interview]. Air quality interview.

Godish, T. (2004). Air quality. (4th ed.). Boca Raton: Lewis.

Jacobson, M. Z. (2008). Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security. Energy & Environmental Science, (2), 148-173. doi: 10.1039/b809990c

Kanter, R., Dr. (2012, November 6). Interview by R. Tanner [Personal Interview]. Port of long beach air quality interview.

Knatz, G., Dr. (2011, February 24). Vessel speed reduction incentive program guidelines. Retrieved from

Lack, D., Cappa, C., Langridge, J., & et al, (2011). Impact of fuel quality regulation and speed reductions on shipping emissions: Implications for climate and air quality. Environmental Science and Technology, (45), 9052-9060. Retrieved from

Morni, M. (2012, October 23). Diesel fumes more polluting than gas, new california study finds. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,7643604.story

Origins of modern air pollution regulations. (2010, January 29). Retrieved from

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Port of Los Angeles, Port of Long Beach. (2006). Clean air action plan.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, South Coast Air Quality Management District. (2012). Air quality management plan draft. Retrieved from website:

Warneke, C., Gouw, J., Holloway, J., & et al, (2012). Multiyear trends in volatile organic compounds in los angeles, california: Five decades of decreasing emissions. Journal of Geophysical Research, 117(D00V17), 1-10. doi: 0.1029/2012JD017899

Weikel, D. (2012, October 21). Pollution drop from building rail yard near L.A. harbor disputed." Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,7931999.story

Wunder, L., & Atkins, C. (2012, September 28). Interview by R. Tanner [Personal Interview]. Port of LA air quality interview.

You, S., Lee, G., Ritchie, S. G., Saphores, J. D., Sangkapichai, M., & Ayala, R. (2010). Air pollution impacts of shifting freight from truck to rail at california’s san pedro bay ports. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, (2162), 25-34.


© 2019 Richelle Tanner

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