WASHINGTON — EPA chief Lee M. Thomas formally unveiled his plan Tuesday to put off air-standard deadlines in San Diego, Los Angeles and many other metropolitan areas and defended the proposal against environmentalists' attacks that it is a surrender in the fight against air pollution.
"I am suggesting that we recognize that in some cities (smog) is a long-term problem. We've worked on it for 17 years, and it may take that much longer" to make the air healthy, Thomas said at a press conference.
The official announcement of the Environmental Protection Agency's plan is a major step in the battle in Congress over revision of the Clean Air Act, which provides for the air standards, and it is the Reagan Administration's first clear public statement of its position on the issue.
The Administration is seeking to change the law to avoid sanctions against 60 cities, including San Diego and Los Angeles, that do not meet air-quality standards that are effective at the end of this year, and to provide more time for compliance. The sanctions would also apply to Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The EPA plan also hopes to shift more responsibility for air quality from the federal government to state and local governments.
Tight Deadlines Backed
Environmentalists are pushing to maintain tight deadlines to keep the pressure on cities, and they want a more active federal role to enforce standards.
The EPA's action, which would remove the threat of sanctions against all cities for at least five years, would relax the current standards administratively while the foes of the strict standards work for a new law. Environmentalists and some members of Congress have vowed that they will not back off the deadlines without a fight.
"What they're saying is that old people and children, who are most sensitive to air pollution, will have to wait until the second decade of the next century and hope the air will be breathable then," Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said.
Vermont Sen. Robert T. Stafford, the senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, charged that the EPA's plan "is not only undesirable, but illegal"--taking greater latitude with air quality requirements than the law allows.
Major Revision Written
Stafford and Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), chairman of the committee's environmental protection subcommittee, have authored a major revision of the Clean Air Act that would toughen smog controls as well as adopt new measures to combat acid rain in the Northeast. The proposal could come to the full Senate early next year.
Waxman has been working on a similar bill in the House. It has been stalled by opposition from major industries, which claim that it would be too costly.
Because Congress so far has been unable to act on revisions in clean-air standards, legislators are likely to extend the current law's deadlines for at least eight months. Legislation to extend the deadline could be voted on later this week in the House.
But the EPA plan would go much further. It would eliminate the current nationwide deadline and replace it with a rule requiring all parts of the country to make "reasonable efforts" to reduce pollution by an average of 3% each year.
For ozone, that annual 3% reduction would not bring the Los Angeles region's air into compliance with health standards for 20 to 25 years, Thomas acknowledged Tuesday. In San Diego, where smog levels also are high, EPA officials estimate that 20 years of steady reductions would be needed to meet health standards.
But Paul Sidhu, deputy director of the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, said San Diego--which according to the EPA has the second-worst ozone pollution in the nation--probably won't be able to solve its ozone problem until Los Angeles does. That's because, he said, "Two-thirds of our smog problem comes from the Los Angeles area."
Under current EPA guidelines, San Diego is allowed to exceed the federal clean-air standard for ozone three days a year. Last year in San Diego, such excesses occurred on 45 days, down from 90 in 1978. So far this year, the region has been in violation 40 days, according to district spokeswoman Lynn Eldred.
Additionally, there were no smog alerts in the region during 1986, the first time that has occurred in 12 years. So far this year, only one smog alert has been called, and officials said that was mainly due to Los Angeles-area smog drifting down the coast.
Sidhu said the region is doing much better at bringing down its levels of carbon monoxide, so much so that San Diego shouldn't have much trouble complying with the EPA's proposed changes.
L.A. Smog Blamed
If the EPA goes ahead and requires 3% ozone level reductions each year--probably starting in the early 1990s--Sidhu said the district will attempt to persuade the agency that such a mandate "seems to us unreasonable and very difficult to meet" because of the problem of smog drifting from Los Angeles.