After years of delays, Southern California’s new smog regulation promises to save lives


The new regulation is expected to prevent nearly 400 premature deaths over the next 15 years.

Across the globe, the amount of pollution you breathe is highly dependent on where you live. This is apparent in Southern California, where the combination of dust, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides known as smog has been on the rise over the last two decades. Between 2010 and 2017, Southern California experienced a 10 percent increase in deaths related to smog, hitting communities of color across the Southern Los Angeles and Inland Empire regions the hardest. 

On Friday, however, as world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss efforts to curtail climate change, a 13-member regulatory board in Southern California approved a major new rule, known as Refinery Rule 1109.1, that could dramatically clean the region’s air. 

Decades in the making, the regulations will require 16 facilities, including 12 oil refineries located in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Orange Counties, to install pollution controls on outdated equipment, most notably heater and boiler systems, by 2031. The rule was under consideration because the air district had failed to meet federal smog standards, and also because the state’s environmental justice law, AB 617, targeted cleaning up the air in industry-adjacent communities across the state. 

Passed in 2017, AB 617 directs local air districts to speed up refinery retrofits to cut pollution and also work with community members to develop emission reduction plans. Local air quality regulators faced pressure to pass the refinery rule under both provisions of AB 617. The rule comported with the law’s mandate to hasten refinery upgrades, and communities included the passage of the rule as a priority in their emissions reduction plan.

The new pollution control equipment will reduce harmful air pollutants — particularly nitrogen oxides, or NOx — by as much as 8 tons every day. The South Coast Air Quality Management District passed the rule unanimously after two hours of public comment and deliberation on Friday morning. 

“This is a critical ruling and moment,” said Julia May, a senior scientist at the environmental justice group Communities for a Better Environment. “You can’t completely clean these industries up — they’re inherently dirty — but in the meantime of a transition away from them, this is part of what we can do to require them to not put out these health-harming pollutants into communities.”

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Grist, 10 November 2021