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Clinton Expected to OK Smog Exemption : Environment: Congress approves legislation freeing state from tougher anti-pollution rules.


WASHINGTON — Legislation releasing California from a court-ordered federal smog plan was en route to President Clinton's desk Friday, a victory for local leaders who warned that the tough regulations threatened to "send a wrecking ball" through the state's faltering economy.

Effective as soon as the President signs it--possibly this weekend--the legislation will eliminate the Clinton Administration's sweeping, court-ordered anti-smog plan for the Los Angeles Basin and Ventura and Sacramento counties, site of some of the nation's dirtiest air. The task of cleaning up the air would then be dictated solely by the state plan under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"In spite of foot-dragging by the EPA, we have succeeded in removing a dark cloud of uncertainty over our state's economy," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who played a pivotal role in getting the legislation passed. "No longer will California's business community be choked by excessive federal mandates that would have driven business out of our state."

Environmental groups viewed the bill's passage by the House and Senate late Thursday as a setback in the fight to clean up the Los Angeles area's notorious air pollution. They argue that the federal plan was ordered by the court as a much-needed incentive for the state to stay on track in writing a plan of its own. The federal plan was to take effect only if the state dropped the ball.

"This is one of a whole plethora of setbacks for the environment, period," Cliff Gladstein, president of the Coalition for Clean Air in Los Angeles, said in regard to a Republican vow to reverse landmark environmental legislation in several areas. "California needs the (federal plan) . . . to continue to put pressure on the state to come up with a plan of its own, which it hasn't done in over 20 years of trying."

At issue was a court order holding California to an array of federal measures required by the 1977 Clean Air Act. Congress amended the act in 1990 and gave every state time to come up with plans to meet federal health standards. But a federal appellate court ordered the EPA to impose strict rules on California because the state had failed to comply with the older law.

Leaders from Mayor Richard Riordan to Gov. Pete Wilson complained about a double standard that they said made the business community nervous, with prospective businesses afraid to move in and existing ones reluctant to stay.

Arguing that losses could cost the state $17 billion and 165,000 jobs, state government leaders resorted to legislation, getting special language applying only to California tucked into a broader emergency disaster relief bill.

The Clinton Administration, which only wrote the plan under court order, did not resist the legislation that lifts it.

The federal smog plan virtually mirrored the one the state has submitted for review--targeting businesses, cars and other sources of smog that would restore healthful air to the Los Angeles region within 15 years.

But the federal plan did offer something the state could not--regulation of interstate sources such as diesel-spewing trucks, considered among the most dangerous air polluters. The federal plan would have forced such trucks to meet health standards in California by 2002, then applied the same standards nationally by 2004, said Gladstein of the Coalition for Clean Air.

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