Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

That federal air penalty is really a local DMV fee, money stays here

Valley motorists have been paying most of a $29 million federal dirty-air penalty since 2011. It’s the extra $12 on your annual Department of Motor Vehicle registration fees.

The federal mandate for the penalty would be lifted if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees that the San Joaquin Valley has attained the one-hour ozone standard. Local air leaders this month are approaching EPA with a historic attainment request.

But what has the federal government been doing with the $29 million each year? I asked the EPA.

“Characterizing the DMV fees as a federal penalty is inaccurate, and it’s the air district that has received the $29 million, not the federal government,” a spokeswoman told me this week.

I confess I have written about the air district part of that statement. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has been open about the money for years. It is used in such Valley clean-air programs as diesel replacement.

But almost every time I write about it, someone writes or calls and asks why Valley residents have to send millions of dollars to the federal treasury. That is not happening.

When the “penalty” was enforced, the Valley air district was allowed to collect the fee. A few years ago, the state law gave the district the option to collect these DMV fees — whether or not the district is under a federal mandate.

Local air leaders say if the Valley attains the one-hour ozone standard, they want to eliminate the mandate.

The next question: How would the public feel about continuing the $12 fee to help achieve the much tougher eight-hour ozone standard as well as the tiny particulate standard?

Expect that question and discussion to come up later on.

Will Valley finally achieve an ozone standard this year?

August, the partially completed column on the right, has seen fewer eight-hour exceedances than in the past.

By October, people in the San Joaquin Valley may not be carrying an extra $29 million debt for missing the old federal one-hour ozone standard.

It appears the Valley could achieve an ozone standard for the first time. This standard dates back decades. An EPA reference indicates a final decision on Feb. 8, 1979, to enforce it.

Pick the reason for the improvement: public awareness, billions of dollars spent on pollution control by businesses, landmark local air rules, cleaner fuels, cleaner cars, environmental lawsuits, good weather, better luck — all of the above.

If it happens, it will be memorable.

Until the last six or seven years, the Valley wasn’t even close to making any kind of ozone standard — federal, state, eight-hour, one-hour. The Valley still has a tough road ahead to make the federal eight-hour standard in the next decade.

This month, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued a report that looked back 17 years to see the Valley’s progress with the one-hour standard.  In 1996, the Valley spent 56 days over the one-hour standard. In 2012, it was three. So far this year, it’s zero.

August has been memorable already. There have been 11 days this month when ozone didn’t exceed either federal standard — the more stringent eight-hour or the old one-hour. Dating to 1994, there hasn’t been an August with more than 10 good days.

Watch this air quality lawsuit in the San Joaquin Valley

Environmental watchdogs filed suit last week to stop that $12 dirty-air fee now attached to your vehicle registration each year.  Keep your eye on this one, folks.

It’s all about that $30 million ozone fine that the San Joaquin Valley pays each year for missing a cleanup deadline.

This lawsuit hits at the heart of who pollutes and who pays in the Valley — where there have been more ozone violations in the last 12 years than any other place in the country. The fine is for failing to achieve an old ozone standard.

The lawsuit says the fine has been illegally shifted from major industries to residents, but local air authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency don’t see it quite that way.

The federal suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Latinos United for Clean Air, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club.

By law, the federal fine for missing the cleanup deadline in 2010 is supposed to be pointed at major industries, Earthjustice says. The EPA violated the Clean Air Act when it allowed local air leaders to waive the fine for many of these industries, the suit says.

But local air authorities say industries already have spent $40 billion over the last several decades and reduced pollution dramatically. Now, they say, it’s time for motorists, who help create the pollution, to pay a little more, too.

There are a host of arguments on both sides about who pollutes more and how the cost should be split up. I’ll let readers trot out the numbers and the arguments.

I’ll conclude by answering the one question that is asked every time I bring up this $30 million penalty.

Where does the money go? It goes into the Valley’s pool of pollution-reduction  funding. It’s used, for instance, to help replace dirty diesel engines in the Valley.