Feinstein Asks Inspector General to Investigate EPA Threat to California

3 min
A view of the Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city in California on May 31, 2015.  (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Update Sept. 27, 11:30 a.m.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday asked the deputy inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's  warning to California that it could lose federal highway funds due to poor air quality constituted "inappropriate political interference."

Wheeler's letter to California, sent Tuesday to the state's Air Resources Board, described the state’s air quality as the worst in the country, with 34 million people living in areas that do not meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The agency called on California to address a backlog in plans aimed at reducing air pollution, and to work with federal regulators to develop workable plans or else risk highway funding, sanctions and other penalties.

“California has failed to carry out its most basic responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, and as a result, millions of Californians live in areas that do not meet our nation’s air quality standards,” Wheeler said. “EPA stands ready to work with California to meet the Trump Administration’s goal of clean, healthy air for all Americans, and we hope the state will work with us in good faith.”

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Feinstein requested an investigation into Wheeler's threat to withold federal funds in a letter sent to EPA Deputy Inspector General Charles Sheehan. The letter implies that Wheeler was being disingenous when he cited  130 incomplete state implementation plans as justification for "statutory triggers" that would impose penalties on California.

"I ask that you investigate whether these reports are, in fact, backlogged as a result of inaction on the part of California jurisdictions," Feinstein wrote, going on to give two examples, one in Coachella Valley and one in Ventura County, she said were erroneously cited by Wheeler as instances of California's inaction on air quality. A 1997 state plan to meet ozone standards in Coachella Valley, she said, is still awaiting EPA approval; and the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District still has one year left to comply with federal standards.

"I also ask that you investigate whether there are other states that have open reports but have not been similarly threatened with sanctions," Feinstein wrote. She noted that the EPA has listed counties in three dozen other states that do not meet air quality standards. "Yet there are no reports suggesting that any of those other states received a threat like the one sent to California to their transportation funding."

Feinstein's letter echoes complaints by California officials in response to another communication from Wheeler, sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday. That letter threatened to "take action" against California if the state doesn't fix water pollution problems the agency alleges may be caused in part by a worsening homeless crisis in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"I was just at a meeting yesterday of all 50 environmental directors and secretaries from each of the states, and the question was, 'Why didn’t other states get letters?'" said California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld. "There’s certainly similar environmental issues in all 50 states, and I think everyone acknowledged that.”

White House 'Tries to Bully Us'

On the issue of air quality, California's leaders contend that they are working hard to meet current federal smog standards, but the state is hindered by the federal government's failure to strictly control pollution from heavy-duty freight including trucks, trains, planes and ships.

The state's top air regulator also pushed back.

Richard Corey, the California Air Resources Board's executive officer, responded to Wheeler's letter by saying EPA officials weren't doing their jobs. He pointed out that California went to court to push the agency to enact smog standards. Also, he said that EPA Administrator Wheeler's letter contains "multiple inaccuracies, omissions and misstatements."

In an emailed statement, Corey continued, "EPA has unclean hands: It sat on these documents for years and is now pounding the table about paperwork issues of its own creation.

"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," he said. "If the Trump Administration is serious about air pollution it will reconsider revoking our waiver, and while they’re at it, why not also fund the EPA to review submitted documents in less than a decade?"

Last week, California sued to stop the Trump Administration from revoking its authority to set greenhouse gas emission and fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and enlisted help from other states in a battle that will shape a key component of the nation’s climate policy.

California and the Trump Administration are fighting over dozens of environmental issues. While the EPA's move on emissions is one of the latest points of dispute, it's not even the only one to arise Tuesday.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the federal EPA over its ruling that vast salt ponds in the South Bay are not “waters of the United States.”

Federal law sets standards for how much pollution can come from cars and trucks. But since the 1970s, that law has permitted California to set tougher rules because it has the most cars and struggles to meet air quality standards. On Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration withdrew California’s waiver.

California has also sued the Trump Administration over is rollback of environmental and clean air regulations.

Jeremy Siegel of KQED and Michael Casey of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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