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Clean-Air Plan Vote Delayed for 60 Days

June 24, 1989|LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Environmental Writer

In a surprise move, the state Air Resources Board on Friday delayed for 60 days a crucial vote on a clean-air strategy for the Los Angeles Basin after warning that "great mistrust" between regional air quality officials and business and environmental interests could jeopardize the plan.

The 6-1 vote followed two days of public hearings in Los Angeles and behind-the-scene discussions between Gov. George Deukmejian and business leaders, and between the governor and Jananne Sharpless, who is a member of the governor's Cabinet and chairwoman of the Air Resources Board.

Sharpless said Deukmejian and his staff were "very concerned" about the economic impact of the South Coast Air Quality Management District's plan to bring the four-county air basin into compliance with federal clean-air standards within 20 years.

"What I'm seeing here--and it really bothers me--is a great distrust of the AQMD of business and business of the AQMD. As long as that distrust remains, this plan doesn't have a prayer," Sharpless said during the two-day hearing.

The board directed the AQMD to spell out specifically how it plans to account for costs to business of proposed air pollution controls. The state also directed the agency and the Southern California Assn. of Governments--which co-authored the smog-reduction proposal--to report exactly how they will obtain the cooperation of cities and counties that are charged with certain responsibilities under the plan.

The delay stunned AQMD Executive Officer James M. Lents and raised new fears that the 60-day period would provide opponents of the plan with a new opening to weaken its provisions.

Lents said he was disappointed, but tried to put the best light on the sudden turn of events.

"They just wanted to help build this coalition, and their perception was they were helping the process," Lents said. But Lents' top deputy, Pat Nemeth, said it would be "naive" to think that business interests would not attempt to weaken the clean-air blueprint in the meantime.

Nemeth complained that during the hearing, the Air Resources Board "heard the voices that did not win" when the district approved the plan last March.

"I feel like we were on third base and the game was called because of rain," Nemeth said.

After five years of debate and planning, the district approved its Air Quality Management Plan on a 10-2 vote March 17. The 20-year clean-air strategy was heralded at the time as the most far-reaching attack yet in the basin's war against smog and a model for the rest of the country.

The plan would require restrictions on everything from factory and automobile emissions to such consumer products as aerosol sprays and barbecue lighter fluid. The district estimates that the proposals would cost $2.6 billion a year, but business estimates place the annual cost as high as $12 billion.

Although an alliance of business and labor interests had opposed the plan, the district believed that its March approval had ended any serious acrimony over the clean-air strategy. The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce said at the time that it now backed the plan but hoped that the district would be flexible in implementing it.

But the ARB's decision Friday raised questions of whether opponents have been given an opportunity to reopen debate that could lead to a weakening of the clean-air proposals.

The ARB has authority to amend the plan before forwarding it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its approval.

"I think there is going to be a major, full-press industry effort to continue to weaken the plan and efforts by local government to weasel out of doing their fair share," Mark Abramowitz, program director of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air, said Friday.

Chamber of Commerce President Ray Remy on Friday reiterated his group's support in principle for a clean-air strategy. But he hailed the ARB's delay action.

"There are very legitimate questions that we and others have raised," Remy said.

The ARB's Sharpless told reporters Friday, "We're not asking for a chipping away" of the plan. She said her concern and the governor's was "process."

"The governor's office was very concerned. He (Deukmejian) is concerned about the impact on the economy, and he's also concerned about air quality and what flexibility there is to build in alternatives," Sharpless said.

Called for Delay

But she insisted that Deukmejian, who appoints the members to the board, did not direct the ARB's decision. She said the move to delay the vote for 60 days came at her initiative.

Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, said he was surprised by the action.

"But I don't sense any grand undercurrent" to weaken the plan, he added.

Remy confirmed that business leaders have been in communication with the governor and said that two weeks ago, there was a "substantial discussion" between Deukmejian and business leaders during a lunch in Sacramento.

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