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Trump officials threaten to withhold highway funding from California for its ‘chronic air quality problems’

The move could put billions of federal transportation dollars in jeopardy.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler on July 8 at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump administration officials threatened this week to withhold federal highway funding from California, arguing that the state has not shown what steps it is taking to improve its air quality. The move by the Environmental Protection Agency escalates the fierce battle between President Trump and the left-leaning state, and could put billions in federal funding in jeopardy.

In a predated letter sent late Monday to the California Air Resources Board, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler suggested that the state “has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act” and needs to either update its plans to tackle air pollution or risk losing federal money.

At stake, the EPA said, are billions of dollars in federal highway funding every year. Federal officials have the right to halt that money if they determine that a state is not taking sufficient steps to show how it aims to cut air pollution such as soot or smog-forming ozone.

In the letter, Wheeler notes that 34 million Californians live in areas that don’t meet federal National Ambient Air Quality Standards, more than twice as many residents as any other state. California has more than 130 “state implementation plans,” which serve as blueprints for how California would tackle these pollutants, awaiting federal approval.

“California has the worst air quality in the United States,” he wrote, adding that many of its plans “are inactive and appear to have fundamental issues” that would keep them from getting approved.

The decision to invoke a rarely used federal punishment represents the latest salvo in the Trump administration’s feud with California over environmental and other policy issues. Just last week, the EPA joined the Transportation Department in revoking California’s right to set stricter pollution limits on cars and light trucks.

The Trump administration stripped California of the authority to set its own auto emissions standards on Sept. 19th. (Video: Reuters)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a statement Tuesday that he and other state officials “won’t be intimidated by this brazen political stunt.”

Wheeler’s letter, Newsom said, “is a threat of pure retaliation.” “While the White House tries to bully us and concoct new ways to make our air dirtier, California is defending our state’s clean air laws from President Trump’s attacks. We won’t go back to the days when our air was the color of mud. We won’t relive entire summers when spending time outside amounted to a public health risk.”​​

Former EPA officials said the letter was an unusual step for the agency to take. “I’ve never seen a letter like this before,” said Janet McCabe, who served as acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under President Barack Obama. “It’s ironic that EPA is taking California to task for not solving the air quality problem when for decades the state has been moving forward with the most aggressive clear air rules and programs in the nation.”

She added: “That’s clearly threatening language in there.”

California officials have repeatedly argued that they have sought to impose stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles as part of a broader effort to tackle smog in the state. “This letter appeared only days after EPA attacked our state authority on cars, increasing air pollution while at the same time limiting our ability to reduce it,” CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey said in a statement responding to Wheeler’s letter.

Trump administration withdraws California's right to curb carbon pollution from cars and light trucks

The Los Angeles area and other parts of the mountainous state have long struggled with smog. Trapped by mountains on three sides, the car-clogged Southern California region forms a basin in which dirty air pools. Smog levels rose so high there in the 1950s and ′60s that Congress gave California a special status under the Clean Air Act to set its own pollution standards.

A senior EPA official, briefing reporters on Tuesday, said California’s pollution situation was “unique” and required the aggressive step. But about three dozen other states also had counties that did not meet air standards for six pollutants, as of the end of August. Texas, for example, had 40 violations of federal air quality standards in 25 counties.

The EPA is giving California until Oct. 10 to cooperate. If the state does not, the agency said it will begin disapproving its air quality plans. After that point, the agency can block approvals for industrial operations that want to expand within 18 months, and withhold highway funding within 24 months.

Bill Becker, president of Becker Environmental Consulting, said in a phone interview that it did not make sense for the administration to punish California for not addressing air pollution in the state when it was simultaneously blocking its efforts to cut down on vehicle emissions.

“Isn’t it ironic that EPA is taking away some of the important regulatory tools for meeting the federal health-based standards and then sanctioning California?” Becker said. “It’s like the kid killing his parents and then pleading for mercy because he’s an orphan.”

EPA officials are also looking at whether to take action against some cities in California in connection with storm water runoff, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no final decision has been made. The president, while traveling back from California on Air Force One last week, told reporters that his deputies were prepared to put local officials in the state on notice.

“You know, there’s tremendous pollution being put into the ocean because they’re going through what’s called the storm sewer that’s for rainwater. And we have tremendous things that we don’t have to discuss pouring into the ocean,” Trump said. “You know, there are needles, there are other things.”

“It’s a terrible situation that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” he added. “And we’re going to be giving San Francisco — they’re in total violation — we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”

San Francisco officials said last week that they already have systems in place that prevent that sort of trash runoff.

Asked about the issue of trash runoff in California on Tuesday, EPA officials declined to comment.