Southern California Edison Co.'s turnabout on an air quality rule it spent years trying to kill is one of the more hopeful signs of the times.
It says that advocates of cleaner air haven't lost their touch. It also speaks volumes about the wisdom of turning over control of a utility to someone with a strong environmental record who seems not to mind admitting a mistake--in this case John Bryson, Edison's new chairman.
At issue was Regulation 1135, tightening the lid on the amount of nitrogen dioxide that power plants and other industries that burn oil or gas could pour into the Southern California air. Nitrogen oxides combine with hydrocarbons--mostly petroleum vapors--to produce smog, one damaging component of which is ozone.
Edison and other companies urged clean-air planners to concentrate on cutting hydrocarbons because that alone would reduce ozone. True enough. Then they argued for more time to reduce nitrogen oxides. That was the problem.
Two years ago, the South Coast Air Quality Management District gave in on nitrogen oxides in return, in effect, for Edison's agreement to stop poor-mouthing the agency's long-term clean-air plans.
But nitrogen dioxide has its own serious health effects besides contributing to ozone. It irritates the respiratory system. It can aggravate asthma conditions to the point of causing death. Those medical facts propelled Gladys Meade of the American Lung Assn. to protest the nitrogen oxide exception in Sacramento. In response, the state Air Resources Board concluded that the nitrogen oxide regulation was too weak.
In times past, Edison might have continued to fight for the exemption, but Bryson, who had ordered up a review of all of the utility's environmental positions after he became chairman, had his own qualms. "We want to be the most environmentally responsible utility in the United States," he says. About a month ago, it was Regulation 1135's turn for review. Last week, Bryson changed course, one of the more hopeful signs of the times.