Southern California Air Board Approves Pollution Program

By Noaki Schwartz | February 4, 2011 | 4:05 PM EST

Los Angeles (AP) - Southern California's anti-smog agency overwhelmingly approved a controversial plan Friday allowing companies to pollute by purchasing emission credits.

The South Coast Air Quality management District voted 10-1 to approve the trading of credits earned by low-level polluters to companies and public services seeking to expand operations and emit more pollution.

The Clean Air Act allows for the creation of the market allowing such exchanges.

The board began hearing the issue at its January meeting, which at times grew testy as board members and opponents of the pollution credit system clashed.

Critics argued the plan would result in more Southern California residents getting asthma or dying while supporters said the system was crucial to preserving the balance between economic growth and public health.

This is the third time since 2006 the board has heard the matter, which has resulted in lawsuits from environmental groups that continue to raise concerns about the way the agency develops it's pollution credits.

In 2009, a court imposed moratorium on trading credits. The state Legislature eventually lifted the moratorium, but that decision will sunset in 2012.

Conservation groups have accused the board of violating the federal Clean Air Act, which requires credits to be enforceable, quantifiable and permanent. Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Coalition for a Safe Environment have said the air district's cache of emission credits was used up long ago but that it continued to sell bogus credits to companies allotted for public service projects.

The air quality agency oversees Orange County and parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. It encompasses nearly 17 million people in an area that exceeds 10,700 square miles and is regularly called one of the smoggiest regions in the country.