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Breath Easy; Locally, the Air Is Getting Cleaner : Pollution: Most manufacturers have cut significantly the amount of contaminants released into the atmosphere, and they plan to continue the effort.

December 01, 1991|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlike neighboring regions to the east, north and south, the Westside is relatively free of toxic emissions from manufacturers, and it is getting steadily cleaner, according to a Times survey of the area's largest polluters.

Manufacturing firms throughout Southern California last year legally discharged more than 50 million pounds of toxic compounds into the air. Among them were 110 manufacturers that reported releasing 100,000 pounds or more of toxic contaminants, or 50 tons apiece.

The figures, compiled by The Times from reports by more than 1,100 businesses, show that large volumes of chemical waste continue to be vented to the air.

On the Westside, however, only 17 companies emitted enough pollutants into the air to require filing the reports, and only one--McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co.--released more than 100,000 pounds. In all, about 570,000 pounds of pollutants were reported released into the air in 1990, a 5% drop from 1989, according to records on file with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, McDonnell Douglas Helicopter has lowered emissions significantly over the last few years by improving environmental control measures and shifting about 15% to 20% of its local manufacturing operation to its headquarters in Mesa, Ariz.

Nearly every other company on the Westside that filed the EPA reports has taken steps to reduce its emissions too, mostly by switching to less toxic chemicals, upgrading emissions equipment or investing in equipment that traps the emissions before they are released into the air. At least one, Garrett Thermal Systems Division, moved to Mexico, and the Hercules Inc. plant in Culver City closed in mid-1990.

All manufacturing companies using 10,000 pounds of any reportable substance that causes toxic fumes are required to report their emissions under the "community right-to-know" law adopted by Congress in the wake of the deadly chemical disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

The law requires manufacturing firms to provide the EPA with annual reports on transfers and releases of about 340 hazardous compounds.

Although the chemicals emitted on the Westside could contribute to smog, possibly cause cancer and deplete the Earth's protective ozone layer, they are being discharged in such small quantities that experts say the results are probably negligible.

The Westside "generally has lower toxic air emissions than some of the other areas of the basin, which have significant manufacturing industries," said Barry Wallerstein, assistant deputy executive officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency that monitors the Los Angeles region's pollutants and air quality.

Under a 1987 law called the Air Toxics Hotspots Information and Assessment Act, companies are required to estimate toxic emissions and perform a risk assessment to quantify the public health risks. That information is passed along to AQMD, which is compiling the statistics and expects to release the results in early December, Wallerstein said. Companies that present significant risks will also be required to notify the public starting next year.

When it comes to overall air pollution, the Westside is on a par with other areas of Southern California. Gas stations and motor vehicles send toxic pollutants into the air, as do the hundreds of dry-cleaning shops, according to Tim Little, executive director for the Venice-based Coalition for Clean Air.

But when it comes to pollution from manufacturers, "certainly the Westside is way cleaner--we don't have a lot of industry here," Little said. "Generally we're in much better shape here than a lot of other places."

Little also said that the Westside's proximity to the ocean and its sea breezes help keep the area free of toxic pollutants by blowing them inland or out to sea.

Most Westside companies are lowering their toxic emissions voluntarily, even if there are no regulations forcing them to do so, Little said. Some are doing so to avoid bad publicity, he said, while others are cleaning up "because everybody is realizing they need to be better citizens than they have been."

Deborah A. Sheiman of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the right-to-know law has been "incredibly effective--even more so than regulatory programs" in prompting companies to reduce emissions.

McDonnell Douglas, for one, is "trying to be a good corporate citizen, in keeping with the spirit of ongoing environmental concerns to clean up the environment," company spokesman Hal Klopper said.

"We have an obligation to the community to do this, and it is in our best interests to stay ahead of impending mandates," he added. "If the environment doesn't get cleaned up, the government will come in and mandate cleanup efforts."

McDonnell Douglas already was improving its toxic emissions before starting to downsize its Los Angeles manufacturing operation, which is located near the southwestern border of Culver City, Klopper said.

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