California must defend rules to protect health, especially now

This post was coauthored by Katelyn Roedner Sutter, Pablo Garza and Lauren Navarro.

A man walks his two kids along the road during San Francisco Bike & Roll to School 2018. San Francisco Bicycle Coalition via Flikr.

A public health emergency is precisely the wrong time to undermine measures meant to improve air quality, address environmental health disparities, or ensure the sustainability of our common resources. In fact, the COVID-19 public health crisis makes it more essential that California upholds its bedrock environmental and health rules, and ensures clean air and water for all.

A preliminary nationwide analysis by Harvard University shows COVID death rates are higher in counties that had higher levels of air pollution in advance of the pandemic. This underscores the vital importance of pollution protections for human health, both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Understanding the importance of having rules to protect California’s health, environment and natural resources, 37 California legislators, led by Assembly Member Eloise Gomez Reyes, have called on Governor Gavin Newsom to “resist efforts to roll back any current protections” and to focus on the health and environmental impacts in the state’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. They know that weakening these safeguards will mean more cancer, more asthma attacks, more heart and lung problems, and more loss of life for Californians.

The following summarizes some key programs and protections that appear to be under threat, and where California should heed the call of these legislators to stand firm:

  • Community Air Protection Program: The AB 617 Community Air Protection Program directly addresses local air pollution in our state’s most underserved and overburdened communities. Now is not the time to step back from a truly innovative approach to improving local air quality, just as we learn that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter can increase the mortality rate from COVID-19. This is in addition to the well-documented health impacts of air pollution. To ensure each participating community benefits from the program’s intended results, it needs to be properly funded and implemented
  • Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT): The ACT rule will require manufacturers to build and sell a certain percentage of zero-emission freight trucks, with that percentage increasing over time. These trucks, which include electric trucks, are zero emitters – they eliminate the array of health-harming air pollution from freight trucks. According to analysis by the California Air Resources Board, this regulation is expected to prevent more than 900 premature deaths and save nearly $6 billion for the trucking industry in California through 2040, largely due to the switch from fossil fuels. Exhaust from trucks is responsible for 25% of total diesel PM in the state. Truck exhaust also includes nitrogen oxides and other harmful pollutants. Continuing to move forward with this rulemaking is paramount to the preservation of public health. Electric freight trucks emit zero emissions.
  • Vessels At-Berth: The Vessels At-Berth rule is intended to reduce diesel emissions by requiring ships to plug in to electric power when they are “at-berth” in port, rather than idle their engines. This is a key priority for port-adjacent communities like West Oakland. Estimates from the community-scale modeling done by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District show that ocean-going vessel berthing is the largest localized source of diesel PM (4.3 tons per year), the third largest source of PM2.5 emissions (7.8 tons per year), and the largest contributor to cancer risk-weighted toxic air contaminants (~3,200). This new regulation is essential to the West Oakland community achieving necessary emission reductions. CARB should stay the course on this important, health-protective measure.
  • Sustainable Groundwater Management Program: Implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is critical to ensure a reliable water supply for California communities, farms and ranches, and ecosystems. The SGMA also helps make California more resilient to severe droughts and other impacts from climate change. Stakeholders in some basins subject to the SGMA have already asked for delays or suspension of key deadlines, but the law gives groundwater sustainability agencies up to 30 years to comply. The COVID-19 crisis may delay some planning efforts, but with many regions suffering the consequences of groundwater overdraft (including land sinking and wells drying up), and the SGMA’s long time arc, California must resist any attempts to delay implementation of this important program. The COVID-19 crisis provides a stark reminder of how important water is to our lives, particularly access to safe and affordable water to wash our hands and meet other basic daily needs.

These are just a few of the key environmental and health protections that some polluters are trying to weaken or halt altogether. California should not let them take advantage of a public health crisis, and the state must continue to be a climate and health leader and stay the course to protect residents’ well-being for now and years to come.

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