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AQMD Adopts Disputed Plan to Clean Air

Smog: Proposal seeks 61% cut in emissions by 2010 but is less aggressive than earlier versions. Firms hail approval while environmentalists assail it.

November 16, 1996|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Rejecting pleas from environmentalists to scrap its plan and start over, the Southland smog board on Friday unanimously adopted a controversial strategy that aims to bring the region's two most ubiquitous and unhealthy pollutants under control in the first decade of the 21st century.

The new plan now becomes the blueprint that plots the details of the attack on smog in the Los Angeles Basin by setting the scope and pace of future regulations. While smog has retreated significantly in the four-county region, residents still breathe the worst air in the nation.

Now the even bigger challenge begins: Fifty-five measures targeting an array of vehicles, businesses and consumer products in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are scheduled to be enacted over the next four years.

The voluminous brew of emissions that creates today's smog is supposed to be cut 61% by 2010 under the plan approved in a 10-0 vote of the South Coast Air Quality Management District board.

The cost to businesses and consumers is estimated at $1.7 billion annually for the next 14 years, which the AQMD predicts will be offset by $1.9 billion yearly in benefits from reducing illnesses, property damage and congestion and improving visibility.

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The new catalog of smog measures is less aggressive and allows substantially more emissions--several hundred tons per day--than other plans drafted by the AQMD over the past decade. The agency abandoned or delayed 31 proposals included in its 1994 strategy after new computer modeling showed that health limits for ozone and particulates can be achieved more easily than previously predicted.

Many of the region's major industries that contribute to smog support the strategy, calling it more moderate and less economically disruptive. Endorsements came from Chevron USA, Northrop Grumman, Hughes Aircraft, McDonnell Douglas, Southern California Edison, Texaco, Shell Oil and the Walt Disney Co., among others.

The Orange County Business Council told the AQMD the plan "balances sound air quality goals with economic impacts in a technically competent manner," and the California Manufacturers Assn. said it "goes further in complying with our requests than any previous plan."

But environmental groups, as well as several air quality experts who resigned this year in protest from the AQMD's advisory council, lambasted it as technically flawed in predicting future smog and too weak to safeguard people, especially in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

"This air plan is hazardous to your health," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. "A vote yes means they will roll back what they committed to do in 1994."

Carlos Porras of Communities for a Better Environment said the AQMD is headed down a path that will mean the Los Angeles Basin--especially inland areas with many low-income minorities--retains its stigma as the nation's smog capital.

"This district has been moving further and further away from protecting public health," Porras said.

The plan shows the AQMD is "an agency that has lost its backbone or its conscience," said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), who heads the Senate's natural resources committee.

Under federal law, the Southland's plan must achieve health limits for ozone--a colorless, powerful lung irritant--by 2010 and for particulates--tiny pieces of soot and other substances that are called smog's deadliest ingredient--by 2006.

Top air quality officials in the Clinton administration also criticized the plan, telling the AQMD that it is shortsighted to ease some of its proposals.

"We believe it is far less in the public's interest to put forward plan and control measure relaxations at this time, when we know that . . . strengthenings will almost certainly be needed," David Howekamp, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional air division, wrote in a letter to the AQMD.

The EPA is expected later this month to propose tougher health standards that will probably mean the Southland's new plan will have to be strengthened substantially within a few years.

Howekamp also warned AQMD officials that they cannot continue to backslide on smog controls. In recent years, the board members have weakened some rules and delayed adopting others because it might harm the economy and fuel already heated attacks from conservative state legislators.

If the AQMD strays from its new plan, it must make up the shortfall or the Southland could face sanctions from the EPA, including a freeze on federal highway funds.

The plan now goes to the California Air Resources Board, where it becomes the main component of a statewide smog strategy to be voted on in January. The entire package then is sent to the EPA, which must approve it or order changes.

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