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Concentrating on Smog

November 22, 1987

The authors of the Clean Air Act of 1970 figured, rightly, that nothing would concentrate the minds of America's engineers like having to meet a deadline. At the time, controlling smog seemed very much an engineering job, to be accomplished with technology and perhaps some modest adjustments in life style.

But 17 years of experience has proved them wrong. For Southern California, at least, the framers of the clean-air act did not reckon on a growth in population and automobiles that would overwhelm technology. It was only dimly perceived then that pollution controls installed in one decade would lose ground against a doubling of the number of new polluters in the next.

Southern California, spending billions of dollars on smog controls in the process, has made progress even against those odds. It has reduced the amount of ozone in its air by 50% over a recent 12-year period. It sharply cut the number of days in which smog was very bad. It did all of this during a time when the number of automobiles on the road doubled and the number of miles driven more than doubled. But for all that, the air will still fail to meet federal standards when the clock strikes 12 on New Year's Eve, the deadline.

Setting target dates for wringing pollutants out of the air has served a purpose. Deadlines probably have prodded some air-pollution agencies to work harder than they might have otherwise. They are useful measures of how much has been done and how much more there is to do. In recent weeks, however, they have served largely to concentrate the mind not on smog but on the deadlines themselves.

Congress is wrestling with conflicting formulas for extending the deadlines again but setting more rigid requirements for reducing pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency has announced it will make up its own set of rules, a decision of doubtful legality that probably would serve largely to concentrate the mind on court arguments.

Southern California will pass the Dec. 3l deadline wildly out of compliance with federal standards on some forms of air pollution. For one thing, it will have three times as much ozone in the air as the law allows. It will be closer than anyone might have dreamed a decade ago to meeting the standard for oxides of nitrogen, which combine with hydrocarbons to create ozone.

Some of that resulted from pollution controls that were too timid, from smog agencies' losing arguments that more effective controls would inhibit growth in the economy. Part of the failure to move faster is a result of overestimating what technology could do and underestimating the difficulty of persuading people to change the way they live if it would help clean up the air. For some, even a small effort like switching from oil-based paint to paint that does not release hydrocarbons into the air is an unthinkable intrusion on freedom of choice.

Will the future of air pollution be less dismal than the past? There are signs that it will. According to some poll results, Southern Californians are more willing to pay for cleaner air than political leaders imagined. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates polluters in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, has important new powers under a law sponsored by state Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), a bigger budget, and new management that seems determined to use those powers.

The people of Southern California know better than anyone in Washington that their air is dirtier than any other in the United States. They will not be cleaning it up just to satisfy a federal standard but to help those who live in, and often suffer dreadfully from, dirty air. In that setting, deadlines may help but the controls are what count.

Tightening up pollution controls is where Californians should, and will, concentrate their minds.

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