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Region to Step Up War Against Smog

New regulations and fees on development, ships and jet skis are sought under an AQMD plan to cut pollutants by 50% in 10 years.

October 11, 2006|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Southern California air quality officials may impose fees on new development as part of a tough strategy that also calls for more frequent smog inspections of cars and stricter regulations of everything from motorcycles and cargo vessels to hairspray.

State and regional air experts are warning that despite years of effort and billions of dollars, Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and other pollution hot spots won't meet federal smog targets without slashing key pollutants by 50% or more.

As part of a 10-year plan unveiled Tuesday, South Coast Air Quality Management District officials, for the first time, proposed fees on housing and commercial developments, which generate hundreds of thousands of additional car trips across the region. Passenger cars are one of the state's top sources of air pollution.

"We've come so far, sometimes the public thinks, 'What's the rush, what's the problem?' " said AQMD Executive Director Barry Wallerstein. "Well, in spite of all the improvements in air quality

Figures compiled by the California Air Resources Board show 6,500 premature deaths annually from smog and soot-related exposure, 1.7 million cases of respiratory illness and 2.8 million lost work days, with an average 60% of those effects in the Los Angeles Basin.

Speaking with obvious frustration, Wallerstein said, "I've been reading about E. coli and spinach. Certainly the loss of a couple people and a few hundred illnesses is of concern. But this is occurring each and every year in Southern California. If this isn't going to be a priority for us, I don't know what is."

Both AQMD and the state air board this week are releasing proposals to show how they intend to meet new standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for fine particulate matter by 2015, and for ozone by 2021.

Fine particulates are tiny soot particles that lodge deep in the lungs, and ozone is the main component of smog. Both arise from a stew of pollutants from vehicle fuels, smokestack emissions, chemical cleansers and other sources.

Data released by the state board shows that hundreds of tons of nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides and reactive organic gases -- all hazardous components of diesel soot and ozone -- continue to be released every day by cars, heavy-duty trucks, trains, ships, recreational boats and off-road vehicles, construction equipment and other sources.

AQMD officials discussed their plan Tuesday, and the state air board will hold a symposium Thursday morning in Sacramento. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District released its ozone draft plan last week, showing it needs to cut ozone by 60%, and estimating it needs $7.5 billion in funds by 2012 to help replace aging trucks, cars, locomotives and agricultural equipment.

Last March, the San Joaquin district was the first in the nation to target pollution generated by developers. The district assesses fees based on how much a project exceeds emissions thresholds. Several groups are suing to stop the rule, including the California Building Industry Assn., the Coalition for Urban Renewal Excellence, the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Taxpayers Coalition.

Wallerstein said the AQMD would look at a similar fee program or work more closely with local and county officials to require tougher air pollution controls during environmental reviews.

Mark Grey, environmental affairs director for the Building Industry Assn. of California, said he had not read the proposals. But he said that though the group favors continued voluntary measures, "given the current market conditions in California and the lack of affordability, we are very concerned about a new fee added onto the costs of a new home."

Wallerstein said that despite an average $5 billion to $8 billion spent to carry out regional air quality plans in recent decades, Los Angeles last summer again led the nation in smoggy days.

State air officials have estimated that it will cost at least $6 billion to implement a commercial transportation plan, including replacing aging diesel trucks and locomotives.

Wallerstein criticized both state and federal officials for repeatedly "rolling back the goal line by 40 yards" and causing years-long delays in cleaning up local air.

He said that although the district would do everything within its power, most regulatory authority lies with the state or federal government.

"We need more than to hear 'we feel your pain,' " he said, saying the district might seek special legislation to go after developers, for instance . "If you're not willing to do what needs to be done, give us the authority and we'll do it."

Air board spokesman Jerry Martin said state officials agree with Wallerstein that much still needs to be done, although there might be differences of opinion on strategies.

Both men noted that though huge improvements have been made, new research in the last decade has exposed the risks of fine particulate that no one knew about previously.

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