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Capitol Protesters Assail Smog Check Changes

Pollution: Radio talk show hosts are among thousands who claim new state rules could lead to seizure of older cars. Backers deny the charge.

August 22, 1996| From Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — Rhetoric was heated on the steps of the Capitol, where radio talk show hosts Wednesday rallied thousands of protesters against California's new "Smog Check II" program.

A California Highway Patrol sergeant on the scene estimated the crowd at about 3,000, CHP spokesman Steve Kohler said.

Some demonstrators held aloft signs bearing Soviet and Nazi symbols and anti-government slogans, saying the new policy would result in their cars being confiscated--a claim that lawmakers, merchants and environmentalists dispute.

Passions are so inflamed that Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) has reported receiving death threats from radio listeners.

The Legislature enacted the smog program in 1994 to meet tougher federal clean air standards. It targets so-called "gross polluters," the worst 10% of cars, which are blamed for half of California's vehicular pollution.

The tests also will check for the first time for emissions of oxides of nitrogen, a leading cause of pollution.

The crowd started arriving before 5 a.m., even before producers began setting up for the KSFO-AM broadcast. Their numbers swelled to about 1,500 by the time the show ended at noon. Included were representatives from the John Birch Society and militia recruiters.

Richard Kuehn woke up at 2:30 a.m. and drove about 120 miles from San Jose to register his discontent. Like other protesters, Kuehn's anger was directed at the part of the law that he said would allow authorities to confiscate vehicles.

"If somebody's going to take my car, it's going to be over my dead body or over theirs," he said.

Woodland resident Joe Souza carried a sign that read, "U.S.A. not U.S.S.R." He said he plans to put 50,000 more miles on his 10-year-old Dodge truck.

"It scares the hell out of me now that I may not be able to," he said. "Right now, mine will pass [the test]. I'm not sure it will in a year and a half."

At a news conference held to counter the protest, merchants and health and environmental groups said they realized that the program was not perfect, but added that drastic steps must be taken to remedy the smog problem.

"The basic charge--that somehow there's a conspiracy to take your car and ride roughshod over your constitutional rights--just isn't true," said Gary Patton, general counsel for the Planning and Conservation League.

"There is no painless way to reduce smog. We can decide to live with it or we can decide to clean it up," he said.

During a prototype test of the new program in Sacramento during the first six months of the year, about 28% of vehicles failed.

No more than 30% are expected to fail when the program starts next year, and car owners will be able to apply for one-time, 12-month economic hardship extensions.

If owners make up to $450 in repairs, they can get a two-year waiver on further repairs. The program also allows officials to offer to buy cars that fail smog checks.

Janet Hathaway, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said repair costs would be minimal.

Lawmakers say the talk show hosts are spreading unfounded rumors about cars being impounded or destroyed. They accuse radio stations of inflaming passions to boost ratings.

The radio hosts, including Melanie Morgan and Lee Rodgers of KSFO, say they are only trying to get state officials to respond to legitimate problems in what Morgan called "an oppressive smog policy based on bad science and flawed data."

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