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EPA Proposes Easing Air Pollution Deadline : Plan Would Give L.A. Basin Up to 25 Years to Reduce Smog but Under Tougher Standards

November 13, 1987|LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a controversial plan to give the smoggy Los Angeles Basin up to 25 more years to comply with federal clean air standards that legally should be met by the end of this year.

Officials said Thursday that the proposal by EPA Administrator Lee Thomas would require tougher pollution controls to achieve annual gains in exchange for the deadline extension.

The plan to delay the federal Clean Air Act's Dec. 31 compliance deadline for reducing health-threatening levels of ozone and carbon monoxide would also cover at least 59 other metropolitan areas. The new deadlines would vary from three to 25 years, depending on the severity of the smog problem. Areas with the most intractable air pollution problems, such as the Los Angeles basin, would be given the most time.

The EPA acknowledged that the plan could be blocked by legal challenges or superseded by congressional action. Nonetheless, EPA spokesman David Cohen said in Washington that agency attorneys have concluded that the existing Clean Air Act permits Thomas' proposed policy.

Effect Could Be Delayed

"It's a fairly tight reading of a loosely worded act," Cohen said. The policy could not take effect before next spring because it is subject to formal rule-making procedures.

Under the current law, the EPA must impose a construction ban on major new sources of pollution in areas that cannot comply with the Dec. 31 standards. Thomas has long attempted to avoid sanctions. By extending the deadline, the EPA said, Thomas hopes to give a break to regions that have made efforts to improve air quality, even though they have not met the standard.

As a condition of extending the compliance deadline, Thomas will ask regions to impose new controls that will reduce air pollution in increments of 3% a year from 1987 levels--a regimen that federal, state and local officials said would be difficult to achieve and require air pollution control efforts surpassing anything that has been undertaken thus far.

Thomas is scheduled to formally announce details of the proposed policy on Tuesday in Washington. But, Thomas himself offered glimpses of the proposal earlier this week during a speech in Chicago to the American Petroleum Institute--and reaction from Capitol Hill began to build on Thursday.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of a House subcommittee that has jurisdiction over air pollution matters, charged Thursday that the EPA plan was "flagrantly illegal."

"I don't think they have that authority," Waxman said. "I think it will lead to litigation and eventually the courts will throw it out."

Waxman pointed to a decision last week by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that ordered the EPA to enforce the Dec. 31 deadline. That suit was filed by clean-air advocate Mark Abramowitz who challenged an EPA plan to extend the deadline provided that smoggy regions made "reasonable extra efforts" to reduce air pollution. Abramowitz could not be reached for comment.

James Lents, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said, "We don't understand how they can find the reasonable extra efforts program illegal but this program legal. It's taken some creative interpretation of the law which we think may be too creative."

Sets New Deadline

EPA officials noted that Thomas' proposed plan, in effect, establishes a new deadline for meeting air-quality standards, whereas the old program of reasonable extra efforts did not. They also noted that a construction ban on major new sources of pollution would be imposed even on regions with approved plans for cleaning the air if they cannot show that the standards will be met within five years.

If Thomas' proposal should survive legal challenges and not be superseded by congressional action, metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles may find it difficult to comply.

Reducing ozone levels by 3% each year from 1987 levels could be expected to force hard choices on local policy makers. The EPA proposal does not tell smoggy regions how to reduce smog, only that they must. Failure to do so would open them to the possibility not only of a construction ban on major new sources of pollution but a cutoff in federal sewer, clean air and highway funds.

The standards were enacted because ozone and carbon monoxide had been shown to threaten human health. In the last several years, more recent studies of health effects have indicated that even the current ozone standard may not provide a margin of safety for healthy adults who exercise heavily.

Standard Exceeded

The ozone standard is .12 parts per million parts of air for one hour. That standard is exceeded 164 days a year in the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. At times, ozone levels reach as much as .33 parts per million. However, the number of days the South Coast Air Basin met the standard went up 17% between 1979 and 1986.

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