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Ballyhooed Irvine 'Ban' on CFCs Not So Clear-Cut

April 21, 1990|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — In the bright, airy conference room at the Irvine Civic Center, the atmosphere was anything but tense as businessmen and city officials recently negotiated the details of this city's ballyhooed ban on chemicals that damage the Earth's ozone layer.

And for good reason. Business leaders who were initially outraged by last year's City Council vote to outlaw emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals by July 1 now find they have little to fear.

That's because the word ban does not accurately describe what Irvine has done with the ozone-depleting chemicals in question. Although Mayor Larry Agran and the city have drawn accolades from environmentalists around the world for getting tough on CFCs, the law has so many loopholes that it will force few Irvine businesses to make major changes in the way they operate.

"The whole thing has been handled very well," said Owen Bevan, a Western Digital Corp. vice president who helped draft the detailed CFC rules that Irvine's City Council will consider next week.

Companies that can still use CFCs in their manufacturing processes in Irvine after July 1 include:

Manufacturers of medical devices regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration, a category that includes the city's two largest CFC users.

Defense contractors, several of whom are also among Irvine's major CFC users.

Any company that uses less than 55 gallons per year.

Any company that can show that "no technically or economically feasible alternative" to CFCs is available.

Other companies may also slip through the cracks, because the city has not yet identified the vast majority of businesses that will be affected by the new rules.

And while many firms are taking steps to curb CFC usage, they said such cutbacks began several years ago and have little to do with Irvine's initiative. Agran, however, says they would be moving much more slowly without the law.

These problems have given ammunition to Agran's political opponents, who claim the mayor has reaped an undeserved harvest of national publicity on the CFC issue. Irvine Councilwoman Sally Anne Sheridan, who is opposing Agran in the upcoming mayoral election, charged that the law is "useless" and reflects "a public relations purpose rather than a real concern about changing the way people do business."

Agran readily acknowledged that the CFC ordinance falls short of a total ban and estimated that emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals in Irvine would initially be cut by somewhere between 20% and 50%.

"We are not requiring the impossible," he said. "But we will require what is possible." And he notes that exempted firms will still have to implement CFC recycling and recapturing systems.

Michael S. Brown, Irvine's environmental program administrator whose hiring was decreed by the ordinance, said that all companies that receive exemptions will also have to show they are looking for alternatives.

"They will be forced to at least try them out," Brown said. "We will be an example of how you can structure a regulatory program that promotes innovation."

Environmentalists, indeed, still stand behind the law. David Doniger, director of the ozone protection project at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Counsel, said a CFC cut of the magnitude predicted by Agran would be quite impressive.

"If the steps taken in Irvine were taken everywhere, that would be a very significant environmental benefit," he said.

Doniger also noted that because businesses prefer uniform laws, local ordinances have the indirect benefit of encouraging support for national legislation.

Agran said it was the lack of strong national and international action on CFCs, combined with the fact that Irvine has many businesses that are heavy users of the chemicals, that led him to propose the CFC ordinance last year.

Although the serious threat posed by CFCs was clearly identified in the 1970s by UC Irvine professor F. Sherwood Rowland, the chemicals are still widely used as solvents for cleaning electronic parts, as coolants for air-conditioning systems and as foam-making agents. Some substitute chemicals, most notably 1,1,1, trichlorothane, also known as methyl chloroform, have also been identified as ozone-depleting compounds, though they are less damaging than CFCs.

An international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol calls for a 50% cut in CFC use by 2000, and it will probably be strengthened later this year to a total ban by that date. The South Coast Air Quality Management District policy announced earlier this month called for the phase-out of CFCs by 1997.

Agran said the city decided to move more quickly, requiring a total phase-out (with exemptions) by July 1, because "what's required by the Montreal Protocol is so slow that it provides very little benefit in the near term."

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