YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Region

Panel Urges State, U.S. to Help Curb Smog

Southland air board calls on higher authorities, saying it has done all it can. Environmentalists say it could do more.

August 01, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

Southern California's air quality agency, which has begun losing ground in its battle with smog after years of gains, is poised to approve a new plan today that includes only modest new controls and instead calls on the state and federal governments to take a greater role in fighting dirty air.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District -- which is charged with curbing air pollution for 16 million residents in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- contends that it has neared the limit of what it can do to fight smog. While it is the main agency Southern Californians turn to in the battle against the unhealthful haze, it has authority over only about one-fifth of the pollution sources, district officials point out.

As a result, the three-year blueprint the district board is set to approve today in Diamond Bar comes with a strong political message -- a list of measures the local officials want the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt to help the pollution problem. They include tougher emissions controls for planes, trains, automobiles and cargo ships, as well as regulation of consumer products such as hairspray.

"The current plan is potentially one of the more controversial plans we have had in recent years," said Barry Wallerstein, the district's executive director. "The bottom line is that we have such a severe air pollution problem in Southern California that everyone needs to contribute fairly. No one should be sitting on the sidelines."

Although environmental groups agree that state and federal authorities have not done enough to curb Southern California's notorious smog problem -- which may again be the worst in the nation this year -- they are united in opposition to the district's plan. They assert that the region's air regulator could do much more.

The groups are pressuring the board to delay a decision until its staff comes up with stronger local smog-fighting tactics.

The district is bound by federal law to reach a set of smog reduction goals by 2010. But 80% of the necessary reductions are not addressed in the plan, noted the conservation groups, which include the Coalition for Clean Air, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the California Environmental Rights Alliance.

"This is the weakest clean air plan we have seen in a decade," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Southern California Air Project. Right now... there is no meat."

Feuer described the district's list of suggestions to state and federal regulators as a positive step, but without legal force, amounting to "a prayer that another agency will come through."

Wallerstein complained about the attitude of state and federal regulators Thursday during a briefing on the plan. He spoke of talks with the state Air Resources Board as resembling "hitting one's head against a brick wall."

State officials insisted they are doing their part and said they would attend today's hearing and debate which measures they were willing to take.

Some of the measures the district is recommending that others take are bound to generate strong opposition from industry -- and also from the public. One, for example, is for the state to use lasers to randomly screen the emissions of cars and trucks as they enter a freeway, and then to try to get the worst-polluting vehicles off the road. The proposal raises many of the same civil liberties issues that have made red-light traffic cameras so unpopular, district officials acknowledged.

Some of the measures they are proposing to adopt are also controversial. One, modeled on an effort already underway in parts of Northern California, would study a ban on fireplaces and furnaces in all new homes in Southern California. Home builders have already expressed opposition.

Regulation of air quality has reached such a challenging moment because many of the easier steps to reduce smog have already been taken. Economic arguments could make it difficult to touch ships, railroads and airplanes, despite their clear contributions to smog.

Bob Wyman, a partner in the law firm of Latham & Watkins heads a regional coalition of businesses -- including the oil, energy, aerospace and entertainment industries -- that lobby on air regulations. He advocates that consumers be given more information so they can, for instance, choose household products that are good for air quality. Giant transportation businesses would be much harder to regulate. "Ships engage in commerce around the world," Wyman said. "Trucks are often owned by independent drivers who cannot afford new vehicles."

Twenty years ago there were 152 days in the Los Angeles Basin in which ozone, the main component of smog, reached what the federal government deemed unhealthful levels.

By the late 1980s, that number had dropped to about 40 a year. A few years ago, California officials bragged that Houston, not Los Angeles, had become the capital of smog.

That has changed, however. The Los Angeles region had 50 days of unhealthful air last year, and is on pace to far surpass that number this year, with 44 days already as of Thursday.

Officials attribute the jump to increased population, the continuing preference of many Southern Californians for sport utility vehicles and other gas-guzzling automobiles, among other causes.

Los Angeles Times Articles