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Sacrifice and Technology: Essential Keys to War on Smog

January 04, 1988|LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Staff Writer

When James Marcellus Lents moved from Colorado to Southern California to become executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, he got rid of his gasoline-powered lawn mower and bought a push mower because it pollutes less.

When an acquaintance dropped by recently to take him to lunch, Lents suggested they ride in a specially equipped Ford that can run on either gasoline or cleaner-burning methanol.

Personal sacrifices and technological innovations are just what Lents says are needed if the four-county South Coast Air Basin, which has the nation's worst air pollution, is ever to meet federal clean air standards.

Now, after a year as chief of the nation's largest regional air pollution control agency, Lents is preparing to translate those tenets into a broad clean-air strategy that eventually could have an impact on the lives of 11.8 million residents whose activities account for half of the basin's air pollution. Industrial polluters account for the rest.

"I personally think it's worth some personal sacrifice to live in an area with beautiful skies, good clean air to breathe, and go out and jog when you want to," said Lents.

The air basin--Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties--missed the federal Clean Air Act's Dec. 31 deadline for meeting ozone and carbon monoxide standards.

This month the district embarks on a nine-month campaign to enlist popular support for the strategy, known as an Air Quality Management Plan, which will provide the framework for an array of clean air rules and regulations intended to clear the skies of health-threatening levels of air pollutants within a generation.

"I believe it can be done. I believe I can demonstrate how it can be done and I believe what . . . needs to be done will not debilitate the economy nor cause people to have to make unbelievable life style changes," Lents said.

Ride-Sharing Program

The far-reaching ride-sharing program effecting more than 8,000 employers and 1.5 million workers approved Dec. 11 by the district's governing board was a beginning.

Additional proposals include a $30.4-million clean fuels demonstration program aimed at replacing 40% of gasoline-powered passenger cars and 70% of diesel-fueled trucks with vehicles that run on cleaner energy sources, such as methanol and electricity. The program would also cover boilers, turbines and internal combustion engines at industrial sites.

Tougher and more frequent "Smog Check" vehicle emissions inspections, reductions in smog producing chemicals in hair spray and room deodorizers and controls on or an outright ban on gasoline-powered lawn mowers are also contemplated.

For Lents, the Air Quality Management Plan represents the first opportunity to significantly shape the future course of air pollution policy in the South Coast Air Basin and, by extension, to influence state and federal policy.

The plan's unfolding, in turn, will also offer Southern Californians from environmentalists to business leaders one of their first opportunities to watch Lents be Lents.

Even though Lents has been executive officer a year, much of what has been done until now was already in the pipeline before his arrival, although Lents is given a good deal of credit for helping to push through the ride-sharing plan.

Lents' upbeat prediction that clean air standards can be met in 20 years may resemble an article of faith more than the considered judgment of an air quality official with the job of taking on the nation's most intractable smog problem.

Indeed, many of the specific clean air tactics proposed in the new Air Quality Management Plan were included in the 1982 version only to gather dust, be watered down, or defeated outright. Other plans, such as those dealing with tougher anti-pollution standards for cars, have already been initiated by the state Air Resources Board.

What makes the new plan different is not so much its content but what many see as Lents' commitment to follow through. New confidence is also being expressed in the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has been chastened by criticism and revitalized by a reorganization approved by the California Legislature.

Industry's Viewpoint

Still, the task ahead is formidable. Hard-won clean air gains such as fewer second-stage smog alerts may be overwhelmed by Southern California's burgeoning population, which is expected to grow by 5 million people in the next 20 years.

Moreover, the costs of future air pollution controls are certain to generate protests from industry.

Even some state and regional air quality officials who wish Lents well say privately that he may be promising more than he can deliver. Further, they said his success will depend in part on winning cooperation from other agencies who have the authority to act in some of the areas Lents wants regulated--a fact that Lents has acknowledged. "We can't do it alone," he said.

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