Political maneuvering and scientific uncertainty are stalling tough action to prevent acid pollution from harming California and its residents, environmentalists and some scientists say.
"It's imperative we act now and initiate controls without a full understanding of all the details of the puzzle," said chemist Jim Pitts, director of the Statewide Air Pollution Research Center at the University of California, Riverside.
The California Air Resources Board's $18-million, six-year acid pollution research program, created by the Legislature, will expire at the end of 1988, but the board wants more time to study the problem.
Board Research Director John R. Holmes said it will be at least late 1989 before studies provide enough information for him to recommend what levels of airborne acid are safe, and whether regulations aimed specifically at reducing acid pollutants are needed to protect Californians and their environment.
'Best Way to Protect Public'
"You don't have to be a blazing genius to figure out chemicals in the air aren't good for you," said Larry Berg, a board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Los Angeles Basin's air pollution agency.
"Common sense says you're putting too much stuff in the air that's not good for you, and the best way to protect the public health is to get it out of the air. I don't think we need a whole lot of studies to tell us that."
Berg, who directs the University of Southern California's Institute of Politics and Government, added: "The politicians and polluters use scientific hesitancy to delay taking action. 'We don't have the evidence'--that's what you always hear."
Holmes replied that the Air Resources Board faces "serious legal challenges if we try to set (acid pollution) standards without a firm scientific basis. . . . They're not going to sit back and wait until every last shred of evidence is in, but they want some evidence before they take action."
George Hidy, technical vice president and environmental director for the utility-funded Electric Power Research Institute, said he sees no need yet for specific controls on airborne acids because they haven't been proven hazardous.
Holmes, Berg and board spokesman Bill Sessa agreed that even without specific controls on acid pollution, such pollutants are being reduced indirectly by existing federal, state and local standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. Those pollutants help form acids, but are regulated because they contribute to smog.
Berg argued that tougher controls aimed directly at acid pollution will be delayed even longer because Gov. George Deukmejian in September vetoed a bill that would have extended the board's acid research program for five more years for another $24 million.
Former board member Gladys Meade, now environmental health director for the American Lung Assn. of California, said the 1982 law that established California's acid pollution program protected polluters by forbidding new regulations aimed directly at airborne acid unless legislators are consulted.
The bill vetoed by Deukmejian would have changed that, so the board could have imposed controls anytime after it had held hearings and formally ruled that research justified controls, said Kip Lipper, chief consultant to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. The Legislature still would have had to be consulted, Sessa said.
Deukmejian said he vetoed the bill because extending the research program before the board reports on its initial research would be premature. That report is due early next year. Deukmejian's financial advisers also urged a veto because of the cost of extending the research.
Sessa said the board was disappointed by the veto, but can again seek an extension of its research program before it expires next year. Holmes agreed, but said the veto "might stretch out a decision on acid rain-related regulations for another year."
Although environmentalists and industrialists publicly supported the bill, Berg claimed that Deukmejian's veto occurred partly because oil companies and utilities quietly opposed it, and their views were presented to the governor by Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan (R-Glendale).
Nolan "kept them out of the spotlight. He'll come back and ask them for campaign contributions next year," Berg said. "It's always much nicer to get an elected official to do your dirty work for you. The economic interests continue to prevail and California residents continue to cough and rub their eyes."
Anne Richards, Nolan's press secretary, labeled Berg's accusation "ridiculous."
She said Nolan urged the veto because airborne acid hasn't been proven a major problem, because "there's no reason to extend it (the research program) a year early," and because the bill would have made industry pay an unfair share of the cost of reducing automobile-caused acid pollution.
Unlike Europe and the eastern United States, where sulfuric acid from coal-burning power plants and factories is the major acid pollutant, most of California's airborne acid is nitric acid formed by nitrogen oxides emitted by automobiles and industrial boilers, Holmes said. Nitrogen oxides also help form ozone, the main ingredient in smog.
"In some ways, the best acid control program would be an aggressive program to attain and maintain state and federal ambient air standards for ozone, nitrogen dioxide and fine particles," said John White, a Sierra Club lobbyist.
Counties in Violation
But eight California counties now violate federal ozone limits: Kern, Fresno, Sacramento, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. Officials of the South Coast district, which includes the latter four counties, have said they will not be able to comply with the ozone limit until 2020, if ever.
Those counties also violate existing federal and state standards for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic nitrogen oxide.
White said even if nitrogen oxide and ozone standards were met, rules aimed directly at acid pollutants still may be necessary.
Tighter control of nitrogen oxides would reduce not only ozone and acid, but also mutation- and cancer-causing pollutants created when nitrogen compounds react with hydrocarbons, Pitts and Holmes said.
But Hidy said: "I would vote for meeting the (ozone and nitrogen oxide) standards as they are currently formulated and call it a day unless there is awfully good evidence there are significant environmental effects from acid deposition. I don't know of any."
Citizens must decide "how clean you want clean," Hidy said. "People pay for pollution control; industry doesn't. They pass it on."
Electric utilities have warned that controls aimed at acid pollution will cause rate increases. Auto makers say additional controls on vehicle emissions will drive up car prices. In a study released Oct. 5, the National Assn. of Manufacturers said acid rain controls nationally could cost the economy 213,000 to 862,000 jobs and $59 billion to $223 billion by the year 2000.
"It's a real bogus argument," said Michael Hoffman, a California Institute of Technology acid pollution researcher. "The bill is going to have to be paid, either by this generation or the next generation. The easiest answer is stop it (acid pollution). . . . It may be cheaper than irreversibly damaging Sequoia or Yosemite or other environments."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California's Air Resources Board and the South Coast district all have been criticized for failing to control Los Angeles' air pollution. Within the last two years, however, the EPA and the board imposed new controls to reduce nitrogen oxides. Holmes predicted more will follow.
He said South Coast agency officials "sometimes dragged their feet" in limiting nitrogen oxides from industries. But he and Berg predicted more aggressive cleanup actions will result from a recent management reorganization.
Congressional advocates of federal acid rain control bills aimed at reducing sulfur and nitrogen oxides face opposition from coal and automobile producers.
President Reagan this year proposed a $2.5-billion program to study and develop cleaner ways to burn coal to reduce sulfur oxide emissions. Critics contend that such research will delay any significant cleanup. The Administration says more study is needed to show if tougher emission controls would be cost-effective.
Might Become Problem
California's levels of sulfur oxides haven't been excessive, except for some violations in Kern and San Luis Obispo counties' oil fields, so the state probably does not need tighter controls on them to limit sulfuric acid, Holmes and Meade said.
White warned that sulfuric acid might become a problem in California if natural gas prices soar, increasing reliance on higher-sulfur oil.
Regardless of whether nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides or acids are targeted for new controls, Hidy said regulations won't solve California's problem with acid and other air pollutants.
"The problem is not so much acid, but how to deal with enormous population growth," he said.
White agreed: "We drive our cars, use gasoline and produce emissions. The villain is us."