If the air over Los Angeles were only half as dirty as it is today, millions of people would still be risking their health when they breathed it. Southern California's air still would rank right up there with the dirtiest in the nation.
That is what an elaborate new plan to clean up the air over Los Angeles and the three other counties in the South Coast Air Basin is all about. No matter how loud some major polluters scream that putting the plan into effect would be an economic calamity, they cannot change the fact that Southern California's air can and must be cleaner.
Making the air cleaner will involve a combination of basic changes in the way people in the basin live, in order to avoid creating pollution, and trapping the pollution that cannot be avoided. If that sounds like too high a price to pay for clean air, it will help to keep in mind a few hopeful signs from experience with smog as the basin looks at the next 20 years of its struggle for cleaner air:
--The amount of ozone over Los Angeles is three times as high as what scientists consider safe levels, but it used to be four times as high. So the fight for cleaner air is not hopeless.
--If Southern California's millions of cars and trucks ran as dirty as cars did before pollution controls were required by the Clean Air Act of 1970, the air would be far filthier than it is now. Air pollution from cars alone probably would be about twice what it is now. So the fight of the last 20 years for cleaner air has paid off. So can a fight over the next 20.
--Southern California's population increases by hundreds of people a day, and the number of miles that they travel by automobile increases at nearly twice the rate of its population. Nobody knows how long Southern California will grow at these rates, but there is no slowdown in sight.
This means that higher numbers of people and cars will, for as far into the future as anyone can see, work to make the air dirtier and make Southern Californians work harder to stifle pollution. It is a battle for blue skies that probably will forever defy total victory over the ozone, diesel grit, dust, fuel and paint fumes and nitrogen dioxides that produce smog.
Automobiles and heavy industrial polluters like refineries and power plants have carried most of the burden of smog controls so far. Now controls need to be tightened on everything from gasoline-powered lawnmowers to furniture factories, which help make smog every time a chair is painted.
The campaign against tighter controls already is under way. Companies that could cut pollution by only so much even with controls could face eviction from the South Coast basin. They get ready to fight. Furniture companies look at a plan to cut their paint fumes by 80% and start a public-relations campaign to persuade Los Angeles that the costs are so high that it could lose 200,000 jobs in the furniture business.
But a democratic society cannot ask commuters to take a bus or a van or join a car pool if it does not ask everybody else to make some sacrifice, any more than it can impose heavy control costs on a refinery and let commuters have a free ride.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District's master plan for the next 20 years is the region's best hope for cleaner air. It would require everyone to share the costs of cleaner air, costs that the district figures will come to something under $200 a year for everyone in the basin. The plan also deserves a closer look by its critics at what Southern California's air would be like 20 years from now without the plan before they go any further down the path toward destroying it.