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ROBERT A. JONES

Dithering Over Dirty Air

September 14, 1997|ROBERT A. JONES

Good news. Of a sort. The AQMD has capitulated in the matter of Sunlaw Energy Corp., finally allowing the company to help cleanse that soup of gases we refer to as "air" in Los Angeles.

You may notice the irony of an air pollution agency being forced to "capitulate" to cleaning the air. But so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say; that's the state of affairs these days at the AQMD.

To recap the story, Sunlaw knocked on the district's door about two years ago with a claim that it had developed a new system for scrubbing pollutants from power plant stacks. Specifically, the company said its system would reduce gases such as nitrogen oxide--a major smog component--to one-

third the level produced by existing plants.

All the AQMD needed to do was test the new system and decide whether the Sunlaw people were charlatans or the real thing. If the decision was charlatans, toss 'em out. If the real thing, get on with it.

But the AQMD did neither. It dithered and made excuses for nearly two years. Finally the federal Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, found the test results remarkable and certified them in a matter of weeks.

That happened in July. And still the AQMD withheld its blessing.

Even Mike Antonovich couldn't understand it. The supes' representative on the AQMD board, Antonovich wrote the executive director and asked, in effect, what's going on?

The answer was more dithering. Barry Wallerstein, acting executive director of the AQMD, offered this gobbledygook in reply:

"Health and Safety Code Section 40440.11 (c) specifies the criteria and process that must be followed by the AQMD in order to update and change the BACT designation contained in the BACT Guidelines."

Got that? Translated into English, Wallerstein was claiming that a state law passed in 1995 prohibited the AQMD from recognizing the EPA's decision on Sunlaw. It was an absurd position because states cannot prohibit enforcement by federal agencies operating under federal law.

When the EPA caught wind of the Wallerstein claim, it put the hammer down on the AQMD. Either recognize the Sunlaw certification or risk losing your authority to review new technology, the EPA said.

And so the ugly culmination: The AQMD caved, reversing its interpretation of state law, and certified Sunlaw. The new technology is now available for use in Southern California.

A debacle, yes, but one that goes beyond its immediate importance. It demonstrates the depressing erosion taking place at a public agency that once led the world.

Not for nothing did the old AQMD win the reputation of seeking out the best technology to control pollution. Not for nothing did it get known for imposing the most stringent standards. We had the best air pollution district in the world.

These days, the agency seems to spend much of its energy advertising that L.A.'s air is much cleaner than it was 25 years ago. And it is. But that progress was made largely because of the work, and political will, of the AQMD that has long disappeared.

The new AQMD, while reminding the public of the progress made, rarely confronts the disagreeable fact that L.A. still has the dirtiest air on the North American continent outside of Mexico City.

Nor does it widely publicize the findings of recent studies showing air pollution to be far more dangerous and life-shortening than was previously believed.

These studies, especially those on microscopic particulates, have demonstrated that even moderate air pollution can sap the vigor of children and the elderly. In some cases it can lead to premature death.

Here in L.A., of course, we do not have a moderate problem. We have a problem so serious that it could be used, by perceptive leaders, to galvanize support and regain the initiative on air pollution.

Instead, we get self-congratulation by the bureaucrats and, behind the scenes, the impotent dithering over a matter like Sunlaw. In fact, even as the AQMD was admitting its mistakes and certifying the results of the Sunlaw tests, some were saying the battle would be carried on.

Martin Ledwitz, a member of the scientific review committee at the AQMD, says, "The EPA has been told not to do it that way anymore." He means the way the EPA "did it" with Sunlaw. In the future, he says, the EPA will "think twice" before certifying.

It is unlikely, I think, that the EPA will quake in its boots over Ledwitz's threat. But the remark suggests the current tone of things at the AQMD. As does the fact that Ledwitz, in addition to sitting on the agency's scientific committee, also happens to be Southern California Edison's chief lobbyist at the AQMD.

And so the news was good this week at the AQMD. But good in its own peculiar fashion.

Which is to say, sort of.

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