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Senator calls for probe into EPA actions against California

Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON, Sept 27 (Reuters) - California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on Friday called for a probe into whether a Trump administration threat earlier this week to withhold transportation funding from California over claims of poor air quality was politically driven.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter to California's top air regulator saying the state has failed to carry out its most basic tasks under the Clean Air Act, and not produced timely plans to meet targets for ambient air quality goals, and threatened to withhold over $4 billion in federal highway funding.

The letter was yet another flashpoint in a series of recent conflicts between California and the Trump administration over the state's defense of its own stricter clean air and water rules, such as their tighter vehicle emission standards that are followed by more than a dozen states.

"I am concerned that California is being unfairly targeted, and that this issue of backlogged state implementation plans is nothing more than a pretext to attack California, rather than a good-faith effort to help improve Californias air quality," Feinstein said in her letter to Charles Sheehan, deputy inspector general of the EPA.

California had imposed strict state limits on vehicle emissions in defiance of Trumps attempts to roll back federal clean car regulations. Those tailpipe emissions are regulated separately from ambient air pollutants, but California argues the vehicle rules are essential to meeting those goals.

After four major automakers struck a voluntary deal earlier this month to adopt California's emissions standards over weaker EPA standards, the Justice Department opened a probe in the matter. President Donald Trump said he would revoke California's legal authority to set more stringent standards.

The Trump administration this year also withheld $929 million from Californias high-speed rail project awarded in 2010, prompting the state to sue.

And on Thursday, EPA's Wheeler accused California of violating clean water laws by allowing human waste from homeless residents to enter waterways.

Feinstein disputed that backlogged state implementation plans were due to California inaction. She cited one example where a state plan was awaiting EPA approval, and another where the state still had one year to comply.

She asked the inspector general to investigate whether over three dozen states with similar issues are being targeted.

"There are no reports suggesting that any of those other states received a threat like the one sent to California to their transportation funding," the letter said.

Feinstein said by withholding highway funds, the EPA would deprive California one of its biggest tools to improve its air quality. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici Editing by Marguerita Choy)