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Air: Cleaning Kit

September 25, 1987

Southern California's air is tolerably clean when the weather behaves, as it did this summer. The rest of the time the region needs help from air-pollution controllers who themselves need the kind of help written into a bill waiting for Gov. George Deukmejian's signature. It is a sound bill that should become law.

The California Legislature proposes broad new powers for the South Coast Air Quality Management District and a shake-up of the district's board. The idea is to turn the spotlight onto policy-makers and hold them more to account for decisions that lead away from, not toward, cleaner air. One blow for accountability says that any individual can petition for a public hearing on any application for a permit to build or expand a polluting operation.

One new power would allow the district to bar heavy-duty trucks from freeways and streets during rush hours. Car engines pollute less at cruising speed than at idle in gridlock.

To promote cleaner-burning fuels like methanol, the district could go so far as to order the Southern California Rapid Transit District to phase out smoky diesel-burning buses and replace them with buses that burned cleaner fuel.

Under the new rules, the district might even succeed in making ride-sharing more common by requiring large employers to offer their employees incentives to ride buses or to share cars and vans. Its board tried, and failed, to impose a ride-sharing regulation two years ago that it estimated would keep 200,000 cars off the roads every working day. That relatively tiny reduction in traffic would keep 100 tons of tailpipe pollutants out of the air every year. The entire smog-inspection program cuts tailpipe pollution by just 50 tons.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), is not perfect, and it is weaker in some ways than when he introduced it. Presley wanted to cut the number of directors in half and make the majority of a seven-member board accountable directly to the governor. He settled for an 11-member board that might have the same strengths and weaknesses of the present group. He wanted to give the district the right to charge polluters, presumably at a rate that would make it cheaper for them to tighten up on their pollutants. That did not survive.

One set of fingerprints left by lobbyists appears in the section that would ban trucks at rush hour, and it leaves a bizarre sense of Southern California's priorities. The section would exempt trucks carrying trash and hard drink.

But enough strong points have survived to make SB 151 a bill that Southern California needs. The clean air of a summer so cool that it makes the history books is a rare gift. For the most part, Southern Californians are on their own. Science and technology can keep some pollutants out of the air. Changes in the way people do things like commuting and delivering cargo can also help. The Presley bill acknowledges the need for both approaches to cleaner air. It would not make the job any cheaper or any easier, but it would help make it possible.

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