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Breathe--and Lobby--While You Can : Air Quality Is Abysmal, Controls Are Getting Weaker

March 22, 1987|ELLEN STERN HARRIS | Ellen Stern Harris is executive director of the Beverly Hills-based Fund for the Environment and a former member of the state Environmental Study Council and the Los Angeles County Environmental Quality Control Committee.

On a glorious rain-drenched and wind-swept Southern California day, when the view is from here to Catalina and Mt. Baldy and the breathing is easy, who can bear to think about smog?

Those of us who know that our meteorological good fortune can't last, that's who.

Take a deep breath now and think about autumn, when the inversion layer clamps a tight lid over the brown-aired South Coast Basin. That's when you can hardly see a block away through smarting eyes. People feel lousy and productivity plummets.

You should be mad as hell by now, just thinking about the outrageousness of our toleration of such a basic assault on our lives, liberties and happy pursuits.

Well, you don't have to take it anymore. It's not as if we don't know what to do about getting rid of smog.

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Air Resources Board announced the results of a joint audit on the work of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. They found that while there are plenty of important steps that the district could be taking toward improving air quality, the pace of those in charge might better be described as a crawl.

Last week the American Lung Assn. of California released its study of the AQMD's performance. Along with its detailed findings, the report contained 25 significant recommendations that, if implemented, would substantially improve air quality here. Among them are such sensible ideas as requiring an air-quality component in every city and county land-use general plan. That way, development would be legally determined by air-quality considerations. Other reasonable suggestions are for the AQMD to actually implement its own present plans for emission reductions and to issue timely annually reports to the public on its progress in that regard.

How bad is our air? Over the past three or four years, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments, we have been getting further and further from achieving our clean air goals. In 1983 we fell short of our goals by six tons per day in combined stationary and vehicular emissions of reactive organic gases--oil and gasoline. The shortfall for 1984 was 40 tons per day and for 1985 it was 80 tons.

It is true that the level of emissions from vehicles is being reduced steadily, but not at a sufficient rate to compensate for new stationary sources of smog and the increased number of vehicles on our roads. So the 1986 figures will no doubt tell us that we are doing nothing more than running in place.

Our federal government seems to be of two minds when it comes to cleaning up our air. On the one hand, we hear rumbles about the possibility of sanctions being imposed in the South Coast Basin because of the failure to achieve reasonable progress toward federal clean air standards. Such sanctions could include a cutback on federal highway funds and even a ban on new hookups to sewage-treatment plants in the area.

On the other hand, we find the Reagan Administration proposing to drill for more oil off our shoreline, an activity that adds greatly to our air quality problems. And by proposing to reduce the fuel-savings requirements for new cars and by eliminating the tax credits for solar energy, the Administration seems to be intent on adding to our smog woes.

One of the most hopeful strategies for achieving clean air standards is the replacement of petroleum fuels for vehicles with cleaner-burning methanol. But the Administration also favors eliminating the tax incentives to encourage methanol's use. In addition it has drastically cut research funds for alternative, clean energy research.

Again, how bad is our air? According to Gladys Mead of the lung association, we fail to meet federal standards on half of the days of the year.

What are you going to do about it?

Don't wait for fall to come. By then, the members of Congress probably will have already decided how much clean air you get to breathe. They'll be working on amendments to the Clean Air Act. You'd better let your representative and Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson hear from you soon. They're constantly hearing from major campaign contributors, many of whom also contribute major amounts of pollution to your air.

Did you think that getting clean air was something that environmentalists should be doing for you? Don't count on it. They need all the help they can get. Where are all the joggers huffing and puffing through the smog? Organize.

Where are all the real-estate people? They know that a house on the Westside, wafted by clean, clear ocean breezes, can sell for twice as much as an identical one in beautiful but frequently smoggy Pasadena. Organize.

Where are all the doctors who see so much smog-induced suffering? Their lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington. Here's a great way to win friends among those who wonder what became of some of our doctors' priorities.

Tourism is one of Southern California's leading industries. What travel agent is going to send customers to a smog-plagued area and expect repeat business? There are businesses and unions who have much to gain by getting the air cleaned up here. Go sell your Chambers of Commerce to go sell Congress.

You don't have to have a Ph.D. from Caltech or be a technocrat to do something about smog. It's simply a matter of political will. Whoever you are, whatever you do, whatever group you belong to, get busy now. The Clean Air Act will be only as effective as you make it. You shouldn't breathe easy until you've at least written to your representative in Congress about this.

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