Southern California’s air quality is among the nation’s worst, despite significant improvements in recent years, according to Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) who addressed the IJJ fellows Saturday morning. The district covers 16.5 million residents and 10,000 square miles including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It is home to about a quarter of the nation’s population exposed to dangerous levels of ozone (exceeding federal standards for 8 hours), and more than half the country’s exposure to PM 2.5 fine particulates. The South Coast district’s air pollution is considered responsible for more than 5,000 premature deaths per year, on average 18 years early; and 9,000 hospitalizations per year. Diesel emissions from trucks, ships, trains, construction equipment and other sources account for the vast majority of the district’s air pollution risks, including 84 percent of increased cancer risk according to the MATES III Monitoring project. In terms of criteria pollutants NOx, SOx and PM2.5, off-road and on-road mobile sources are considered responsible for 80 percent of the district’s air pollution. “Diesel death zones” include the region’s ports, where nearly half of the nation’s goods enter. Wallerstein called for stepped-up pollution regulation at the ports. “If we are receiving 44 percent of the nation’s goods through our ports, we don’t think it’s too much to ask that someone in Kansas pay another nickel for their Nikes to protect air quality for people in California,” he said. The state’s ability to regulate tailpipe emissions is in federal litigation, after the Bush administration failed to grant a waiver to the state to institute the regulations that go beyond federal Clean Air Act requirements. If California is allowed to regulate tailpipe emissions, a number of other states have indicated they would follow suit. Wallerstein stressed that Los Angeles’ air quality has improved dramatically; he showed a 1953 photo of a woman cowering, eyes watering, in the midst of a visible cloud of smog. But he said there is still a long way to go. Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics (CCAT), called much of the improvement “smoke and mirrors.” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney David Pettit lamented that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is no longer a “legal weapon” in EJ cases since a Supreme Court decision during the Bush administration mandating that disparate impact caused by given developments must be intentional to be ruled a violation of civil rights. Pettit noted the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which requires public environmental review of any large project can be used to fight polluting projects and developments. Lawsuits filed under CEQA can delay and in some cases torpedo developments, though Pettit noted it must be used on a project by project basis. The NRDC is in three different federal litigations right now in regards to its efforts to clean up the ports, including one with the national trucking industry group, which would increase costs of doing business slightly in order to reduce emissions. ”We have huge industry pushback” in relation to the port efforts, he said. The group has also sent a RCRA notice letter to the Port of Long Beach, invoking the federal statute that can lead to an injunction against projects that endanger human health. Both Pettit and Wallerstein advocate a switch from diesel to electricity for port operations including railroads and trucks. Meanwhile the NRDC is representing the Mothers of East L.A. in fighting a proposed 945 megawatt power plant in Vernon. The NRDC working with the Mothers were previously victorious in defeating plans for an incinerator in the area. Williams pointed to the defeat of proposed hazardous waste incinerators and the closure of existing ones in California is one of the prime successes of the 30-year-old environmental justice movement in the state. Williams noted that very few groups are working on toxic pollutants, as most are focusing on climate change and the fossil fuel industry. And she along with Pettit noted that with the current economic crisis, the EJ fight is harder than ever. “EJ has been played against jobs for its entire 30 year history,” said Williams. “You’re either going to have a job shoveling waste into an incinerator, or you’re not going to have a job at all.” She called that frame erroneous, and stressed green jobs. “If you’re not going to have fossil fuel development, if you’re going to have renewable development, eight times as many workers will be employed.”