Central California to make motorists pay dirty air penalty

The San Joaquin Valley's air board voted Thursday to make motorists — not industry — pay a $29 million dirty-air penalty intended for pollution-emitting businesses.

The decision, first of its kind in the nation, would add $12 to vehicle registration fees in the Valley beginning next year — if air-quality activists don't successfully challenge it in court.

The penalty was triggered when the region missed an ozone cleanup deadline this year. Air officials said the penalty would not be fair for businesses, which have spent $40 billion over the last three decades to reduce their pollution by 80 percent. Most of the Valley's ozone problem comes from vehicles, officials said.

"It does not make sense to squeeze businesses," said Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

The action shifts decades of emphasis on regulating industrial pollution, focusing more responsibility on motorists. It is considered especially significant in California, home of the nation's worst ozone pollution.

So far, only two districts are discussing charging motorists for missing an ozone deadline — the Valley air district and the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California. If the board's action Thursday holds up in court, the Valley would be the first in the nation to do so.

Vehicle owners would be on the hook for the extra fee each year until the Valley stops violating the federal one-hour ozone standard. The region violated the standard seven times during summer.

The $12 surcharge would raise more than $30 million annually, which would be used in the Valley to buy new school buses, help diesel truck owners buy new equipment and invest in mass transit.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must approve the idea by next summer or the Valley will face sanctions, including increased costs for new businesses and temporary loss of road-building funds of about $250 million a year.

But the agency earlier this year advised the air district that increased vehicle registration fees might be appropriate for the ozone penalty.

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