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Mixed messages in the air

The governor's actions often work against his tough talk on pollution.

July 03, 2007|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger travels the world exhorting countries to act quickly to reduce harmful gas emissions, his administration is helping California's construction industry stall tough new air quality rules at home.

In public hearings and private negotiations, administration transportation officials are working to slow a planned crackdown by regulators on aging diesel construction equipment -- among the state's most noxious machinery and a major source of greenhouse gases.

The officials successfully lobbied a board appointed by the governor to delay voting on draft regulations for dealing with the polluters. The officials argued that the new rules, years in the making, were too tough on the construction industry -- which is a major Schwarzenegger donor.

Last week, the governor fired the board's chairman, who said he was let go after pushing ahead with aggressive pollution curbs. The administration said the chairman was fired because he wasn't tough enough -- a claim environmentalists find dubious. On Monday, the board's executive officer quit with a sharply worded criticism of the administration.

The departed air board officials said they were frustrated by administration meddling in both the diesel construction equipment crackdown and the implementation of landmark legislation the governor signed last year to curb global warming.

It is not the first time the governor has made bold promises on the environment while his administration dragged its feet behind the scenes. Schwarzenegger has vetoed bills that would put new taxes on polluters, spur the development of alternative fuels and help clean the air. He has accepted $1 million in campaign cash from the oil industry, and he had threatened to veto the global warming bill unless it was made more business-friendly.

Although the governor says he wants to hold polluters more accountable, administration officials recently signaled lawmakers that Schwarzenegger may not support a separate legislative crackdown. Lawmakers are proposing to prohibit the dirtiest equipment from being used on public works projects bankrolled with state bond money approved by voters last year.

Going slow on goals

Environmentalists say the governor's lofty goals clash with his administration's go-slow approach on construction equipment, which could put California out of compliance with minimum federal clean-air requirements and make a mockery of his repeated pledge to reduce state air pollution by half.

"He's not going to get there if they water down these regulations," said Kathryn Phillips, an advocate with the nonprofit group Environmental Defense.

Schwarzenegger says he's just trying to be realistic.

"We have to have the ramp-up time and look at always what technology is available and how we can meet a certain goal," the governor said in a recent interview. "It is walking a fine line."

Fumes from heavy diesel construction equipment are linked to tens of thousands of cases of asthma and 1,100 deaths annually, state studies show. Scientists and economists say staying in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act would cost the industry more than $3 billion over the next two decades. Construction companies say it could be at least three times that amount.

"We don't believe the technology is evolving fast enough" to do what the new state regulations would require, said Mike Lewis of the Construction Industry Air Quality Coalition, a trade group. "We're not arguing with the goal. But you are asking us to replace 85% of our equipment by 2020. We don't believe there is enough money in the industry to do this."

Construction companies and builders have buried regulators with letters and e-mails saying the regulations would put them out of business.

Officials at the Air Resources Board, a state entity that enforces environmental laws, say the costs are manageable for a multibillion-dollar industry whose business is about to boom because of a surge in public works spending.

They also say a delay could cost the state $1.2 billion in lost federal transportation funding.

The 112,000 tractors, excavators, backhoes and other construction vehicles that regulators are targeting are the second-largest source of diesel pollution, after trucks and buses, in California. The rules drafted by the Air Resources Board would require construction firms, over the course of several years, to replace their dirtiest equipment or retrofit the machines with devices that capture soot.

Doing so, state scientists say, would avoid hundreds of deaths each year and thousands of cases of asthma. Such a move would cut smog and curb the release of greenhouse gases.

It also would arguably heed the governor's call to spur the economy with tough environmental rules that create a need for new technologies -- technologies that could be developed by the state's budding "clean tech" industry.

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