By GARANCE BURKE

Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Two California regions plagued with the nation's worst air quality must send in plans to clean up their soot-laden air or risk losing federal highway funding, a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official said Monday.

Regional EPA Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said state air quality managers are years late submitting plans to reduce air pollution in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley to meet federal standards for airborne dust, smoke and soot.

The microscopic pollution particles have been linked to premature deaths, as well as respiratory problems, heart attacks and lung cancer.

"If you're living in the worst air quality neighborhoods in the nation, you expect EPA to deal effectively with getting reductions that have been promised," Blumenfeld said. "We need to make sure that we are getting back on track and that we are getting clean air for residents."

Monday's announcement effectively puts the California Air Resources Board on notice to show EPA how the regions will lower emissions of soot from fireplaces, dust from farming and exhaust from diesel engines to acceptable levels, Blumenfeld said.

The proposal and any potential financial sanctions wouldn't become final until regulators get public input over the next 60 days. The board did not immediately provide comment Monday.

Fine particle pollution -- airborne specks that are just one-thirtieth the width of a human hair -- is endemic in the agricultural valley and the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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