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EPA OKs State Plan to Cut Smog

Pollution: Agency tells officials not to assume vague technological breakthroughs in the future and warns them not to relent on guidelines.


The first California clean air plan that commits to reducing enough smog to meet federal health standards was approved Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While declaring the strategy acceptable, the federal agency also issued some new conditions and stern warnings to state and local officials to avoid backsliding in cleaning up smog.

The plan seeks to achieve healthful air by regulating emissions from vehicles, consumer products and a wide range of industries and business. The EPA had announced its intention to accept the plan six months ago, but state officials still were pleased by the long-awaited approval.

"Through today's action, the U.S. EPA again recognizes California's leadership in crafting the most comprehensive and innovative smog reduction plan in the nation," said California Secretary for Environmental Protection James M. Strock. "California faces the nation's greatest air quality challenge and has developed the nation's best plan to meet it."

The EPA's decision comes as the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which adopted the plan's provisions for cutting smog in the four-county Los Angeles basin, is gearing up to make major, controversial revisions.

Based on new, more optimistic predictions of pollution, AQMD officials have recommended dropping or delaying about two dozen of the proposals aimed at businesses and motorists in Southern California.

Since the existing plan was adopted by the AQMD and state Air Resources Board two years ago, few of its more than 100 anti-smog measures have been enacted for reducing ozone, the main ingredient of smog. The AQMD has repeatedly failed to live up to the time frame and scope of the rules it had committed to, while the state board rolled back much of its pioneering mandate for electric cars.

Earlier this year, environmental groups had threatened to sue the EPA to crack down on California because they said the state's plan would not ensure that the Los Angeles region will achieve the ozone health standard in 2010 as required by federal law. But on Thursday, the environmentalists said the problems had largely been fixed by the three agencies.

Environmental groups had been especially critical of a large category of undefined actions--which they dubbed "a wish list"--for cleaning up emissions with whatever new technologies might emerge after 2004.

The EPA reacted Thursday by telling the state agency and AQMD to be less reliant on such vague promises in the new plan and telling them that they are obligated to make up shortfalls "on an expeditious schedule" when existing rules are rolled back.

The federal officials also wrote that they will reject California's new plan if it drops measures outlined in the current version "without a convincing showing" that they would be "technologically infeasible or ineffective."

Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Gail Ruderman Feuer said the EPA's new conditions make the smog cleanup much more legally enforceable.

"Our view now is, 'Let's move on,' " she said. "It's time for the agencies' actions to match their words. . . . If they do not, then they will see a legal challenge."

Strock said "the Wilson administration is committed to following the plan," which includes funding a program to buy and scrap high-polluting cars, requiring low-polluting consumer products such as pesticides and cleaners, and setting tighter exhaust standards for heavy-duty vehicles.

Only one element--a portion specific to Santa Barbara--was not approved by the EPA. The city was supposed to achieve the ozone health standard this year, but its air violated it on several days. As a result, the EPA is still reviewing the adequacy of its portion.

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