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 smaller polluters to companies and public services seeking to expand operations and emit more pollution.
The federal Clean Air Act allows for the creation of the market allowing such exchanges.
Much of the debate about the credit system involved balancing industrial growth with public health.
"We don't have new jobs and yet the population grew, the needs grew, the problems grew. I believe this enables us to have the best of both worlds - it's a good compromise," said board member Miguel Pulido, who voted for the plan.
Before casting the lone opposing vote, member Joseph Lyou said the board was losing sight of a primary obligation to minimize economic impact while maximizing public health benefits.
"I'm concerned we're giving up on that idea," he said.
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.
At the beginning of Friday's meeting, district staff members summarized public comment, noting there were more organizations supporting the system than opposing it. Staff also laid out its argument for approval.
Critics have 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 its pollution credits.
Conservation groups have accused the board of violating the 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.
In 2009, a court imposed moratorium on trading credits. The state Legislature eventually lifted the moratorium, but that decision will sunset in 2012. Credits typically sell for about $150,000 per pound per day for particulate matter credits, a figure doubled during the moratorium.
Adrian Martinez, an attorney with the NRDC, said the organization was evaluating its legal options after the credit system was approved.
"We're disappointed with the vote," he said. "We think it's bad for public health."
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.