Air regulators threaten Southern California warehouses with fines

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Southern California air regulators announced Wednesday they will launch a sweeping enforcement initiative to compel large warehouses that have resisted a new pollution reduction program for months.

In 2021, the South Coast Air Quality Management District adopted a first-of-its-kind rule that requires large warehouses to offset pollution from the truck traffic they attract. Operators could mitigate these emissions by taking a range of actions, such as installing solar panels or using zero-emission forklifts. Otherwise, they would need to pay a fee.

However, only 45% of the 1,019 affected facilities submitted a report by the March deadline.

“Time is up for those not complying with our rule,” said Wayne Nastri, South Coast AQMD Executive Officer. “Owners and operators of warehouses have known about these deadlines for two years. Communities near these facilities deserve to breathe clean air and our enforcement teams will work quickly to ensure that the facilities come into compliance as quickly as possible.”

Warehouses that fail to register with the agency could face financial penalties as high as $11,710 for each day they fail to come into compliance. The enforcement action will begin with warehouses operating in disadvantaged communities.

In the past decade, hundreds of developers of colossal warehouses have sought to gain a foothold in Southern California’s bustling hub of goods movement, especially in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Today, the heavy-duty trucks and cargo-moving equipment that operate at the region’s major warehouses contribute nearly as much smog-forming emissions as refineries, power plants and other heavy polluters combined, according to air district officials.

The air district’s warehouse rule aimed to curtail these emissions by 10-15% over five years. If they fell short of their goal, they would need to pay a mitigation fee, which the air district could invest in clean air projects.

So far, the program has raised about $9 million and reduced smog-forming nitrogen oxides by 3%, according to air district officials.

The warehouse compliance reports submitted to the air district included annual truck traffic, warehouse size and how these facilities chose to offset emissions.

The information would have provided the public with insight into the traffic these facilities generate. However, many owners and operators, including Amazon, requested their reports and data to be kept confidential.

Among those warehouses that did report their traffic publicly, the largest traffic was an 830,000-square-foot UPS facility in Ontario that hosted 933,000 heavy-duty truck trips in 2022, according to a Times records request.

Ana Gonzalez, executive director of Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, grew up in the Inland Empire and remembers when much of the area was vineyards and orange groves. Much of the farmland and residential areas have been rezoned and replaced by sprawling warehouses, where diesel trucks queue and idle.

This pollution has contributed to San Bernardino’s designation as the smoggiest county in the nation.

Gonzalez and other Inland Empire residents have fought against building more of these facilities, with mixed success. She is appealing a decision to site a large warehouse less than 100 feet from her Rialto home.

But even as she works to stop warehouse expansion, she said it’s going to take enforcement from the air district to rein in pollution at the facilities that already exist. The compliance data, she said, shows the current approach isn’t working.

“You have to protect human health,” Gonzalez said. “And you have an amazing tool in your toolbox to say, ‘If you’re not going to comply, we’re going to shut you down. You do not have the right to harm our community, period.’

“I wish they would have a stronger stance on that.”

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