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Air Quality Better but Gains Come More Slowly, EPA Report Finds

February 18, 1988|ERIC LICHTBLAU | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Although the air has gotten markedly cleaner over the last decade, the fight against ozone and several other stubborn pollutants has slowed in the last few years, with more than 100 million Americans still exposed to potentially harmful emissions, federal officials reported Wednesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency, presenting the assessment in its annual report on air quality, stressed the improvements as evidence that the regulations now in place are working.

But members of Congress who are pressing for an overhaul of the decade-old Clean Air Act charged that the report's findings are unduely optimistic.

An aide to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said that the report conflicts with an unreleased March, 1987, internal EPA document on ozone that projected a sharp worsening of the ozone problem and called for more drastic air quality regulations than are now supported by the agency.

Panel Begins Hearings

Waxman is the chairman of the health and environment subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Today the Waxman panel will begin considering measures to strengthen the clean air legislation.

In its new study, EPA officials highlighted a dramatic improvement in levels of ozone and five other leading pollutants over the last decade. Lead levels have shown the most marked declines, dropping 87% between 1977 and 1986.

"We have a very solid base from which to go forward," said J. Craig Potter, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, asserting that vastly revised restrictions are not needed. "It's a trap for us to believe that we can solve the ozone problem, for example, by setting tailpipe standards more stringent than they are now."

At the same time, Potter and other EPA air quality experts acknowledged at a press briefing that the progress in reducing levels of three of the six key pollutants--ozone, lead and nitrogen dioxide--is now coming at a much slower rate than it once was.

Might Have Been Worse

They attributed this to an upsurge in economic development and automobile use in the 1980s. "Look, we're lucky (those levels) haven't gotten any worse," said William F. Hunt Jr., chief air quality monitor in EPA's North Carolina office.

The agency asserted that progress should continue and that drastic restrictions should be avoided that might be overly disruptive or not prove cost effective.

But Richard E. Ayres, president of the National Clean Air Coalition, a frequent critic of the agency and an advocate of more stringent measures, said: "What this report shows us is that in the '70s we made progress, in the '80s we haven't. . . . It's hard to see how there's improvement now. In some respects, things have gotten worse."

The EPA figures indicated that 75 million people in this country are breathing air that exceeds federal health standards for ozone; 41.7 million for visible particulates such as dirt and soot; 41.4 million for carbon monoxide; 7.5 million for nitrogen dioxide, 4.5 million for lead; and 900,000 for sulfur dioxide.

Affects 100 Million People

In all, EPA officials estimated at a press briefing, more than 100 million people are exposed to excess levels of at least one potentially harmful pollutant--an estimate that has not dropped in the last few years.

In the Los Angeles area, the study showed that, with the exception of nitrogen dioxide, average levels of all the pollutants tracked dropped in the last yearly reporting period, through 1986. However, the peak concentrations of ozone--the major component of smog--actually increased in each of the last two years tracked.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District said Wednesday that the region remains "significantly above" the federal standard for ozone and small particulate matter as well as somewhat above the standard for nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

"We feel we can meet those four standards in the next 20 years, but it will take a considerable effort by government, industry and the public working together," Rox Ketcham, a spokesman for the AQMD said. "That involves ride sharing, sacrifices to be made by the trucking industry in terms of off-hour use of the freeways . . . and it involves the introduction and growing use of clean fuels to replace petroleum based fuels."

Suggests Tighter Controls

According to the Waxman aide, the unreleased 1987 internal EPA report suggested that tighter restrictions on vehicle emissions, gasoline volatility and other factors contributing to industrial pollution could help bring ozone levels below federal health standards "even in Los Angeles." The city now records the highest levels in the nation.

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asserted that this internal assessment--a copy of which was obtained by Waxman's office--was reviewed by EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas but "suppressed" because it conflicted with Reagan Administration policy.

EPA spokesman Christian Rice called the charge "an unfair characterization." He said "certainly there were options prepared, other viewpoints" but that the final report contained the more authoritative assessment of the evidence.

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