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The More We Know, the More Perils Grow

November 24, 1985|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau.

The environment, one of the hot political issues of the 1970s, was overshadowed in the fierce competition for public attention as that decade ended. But it is making a comeback, becoming an important factor in local political debate and in the state election campaign now shaping up for 1986.

Around the state--in fact, around the nation--homeowners are enraged about toxic dumps near their communities. In Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley and City Council members, other local officials and state leaders are trying to avoid blame for the sorry condition of Santa Monica Bay. In Sacramento, Gov. George Deukmejian is under heavy pressure to come up with a new plan to regulate toxics after his bill was defeated in a dispute with the legislature.

This new interest in the water, air and ground comes from more than changing fashions in a state known for trendiness .

Knowledge, particularly great advances in testing, have uncovered dangerous chemicals in areas where they were thought not to exist. Much more has been learned about how these chemicals endanger health. And scientists now know how these chemicals can react with each other, and with natural materials, to create dangerous substances.

Actual danger to health, instead of aesthetic objections to a freeway or an oil well, are at the heart of the revival of the environment as a political issue. Because of that, some observers in industry and government expect waste disposal, water purity and some of the other current environmental concerns to be a dominant domestic issue in next few years.

If that happens, the answers will be much more difficult, and expensive, than they were in the early 1970s, when the environmental movement emerged.

The interest actually began in the late 1960s and became intense in January, 1969, with the Santa Barbara offshore oil blowout. Television shots of the huge oil slick, and of men and women fighting to save birds and beaches, brought home the dangers of oil drilling, and the fragility of the coastline. Public-opinion polls showed the environment was a top concern of 1970 voters, cutting across party lines. That year, President Richard M. Nixon formed a Council on Environmental Quality and in April, 1970, the entire nation celebrated Earth Day, vowing never to litter again.

Concern on those years centered on preventing more Santa Barbaras; halting construction of freeways that destroyed sceneries and neighborhoods; stopping dam construction, and cleaning up polluted air and water. But, compared to what is known today, understanding of what constituted pollution was then minimal.

As often happens with widely popular issues, interest waned. The cycles of recession and inflation, the deficit, the decline of the America's industrial base, the competition with Japanese entrepreneurs and the growing influence of such single-issue political groups as right-to-lifers, dominated domestic politics.

But interest did not wane in the laboratories. More was learned about the impact of the chemicals needed for the manufacture of everything from automobiles to computer memory chips. Silicone Valley in Northern California, that prided itself on its pollution-free computer industry, found that chemicals used in the industry were damaging the underground water supply.

Water is an example of the change.

Taste and freedom from disease carrying germs were the main worries of public and private water suppliers for years. Water in the Southland was considered pure, even though the water from the Colorado River supplied by the Metropolitan Water District, was heavy in mineral content.

But a decade or so ago, as more was learned about the new chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency began more sophisticated testing, as did such state agencies as California's Water Quality Control Board. It was discovered, for example, that dirt, leaves and other organic matter falls into the water of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and makes its way to Southern California. There, it mixes with chlorine used by the Metropolitan Water District to purify its water and, scientists discovered, produced a cancer-causing chemical. To remedy that, chlorine was replaced by another purifier, chloramine. But that produced another side affect. The water was damaging to kidney patients on dialysis machines. Hospitals with dialysis had to put in special filters.

This all means that the environmental debate of the 1980s will be highly technical, as well as political, and will be much more difficult for the public, politicians and the press to deal with.

The complex nature of the debate will be terrible news for many politicians. In the 1970s, a candidate could deal with these questions by calling for a ban on oil drilling or putting smog control devices on cars. Now, in an era where the cure can cause an even worse malady, and toxics are incredibly expensive to clean up, political speech writing is much harder.

The press will face the same difficulty. Intense research is needed for stories on the new chemical pollution. Reporters who consider themselves generalists or cover broad specialties, such as government or politics, are now doing what amounts to science writing.

For the public it means many confusing charges and countercharges, with numbers and long chemical names being thrown about. That imposes a burden on politicians and press to make the debate as clear as possible. Otherwise, listeners might simply conclude that nothing is safe--and forget the whole thing.

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