Sacrifice and Technology: Essential Keys to War on Smog

Times Staff Writer

When James Marcellus Lents moved from Colorado to Southern California to become executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, he got rid of his gasoline-powered lawn mower and bought a push mower because it pollutes less.

When an acquaintance dropped by recently to take him to lunch, Lents suggested they ride in a specially equipped Ford that can run on either gasoline or cleaner-burning methanol.

Personal sacrifices and technological innovations are just what Lents says are needed if the four-county South Coast Air Basin, which has the nation's worst air pollution, is ever to meet federal clean air standards.

Now, after a year as chief of the nation's largest regional air pollution control agency, Lents is preparing to translate those tenets into a broad clean-air strategy that eventually could have an impact on the lives of 11.8 million residents whose activities account for half of the basin's air pollution. Industrial polluters account for the rest.

"I personally think it's worth some personal sacrifice to live in an area with beautiful skies, good clean air to breathe, and go out and jog when you want to," said Lents.

The air basin--Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties--missed the federal Clean Air Act's Dec. 31 deadline for meeting ozone and carbon monoxide standards.

This month the district embarks on a nine-month campaign to enlist popular support for the strategy, known as an Air Quality Management Plan, which will provide the framework for an array of clean air rules and regulations intended to clear the skies of health-threatening levels of air pollutants within a generation.

"I believe it can be done. I believe I can demonstrate how it can be done and I believe what . . . needs to be done will not debilitate the economy nor cause people to have to make unbelievable life style changes," Lents said.

Ride-Sharing Program

The far-reaching ride-sharing program effecting more than 8,000 employers and 1.5 million workers approved Dec. 11 by the district's governing board was a beginning.

Additional proposals include a $30.4-million clean fuels demonstration program aimed at replacing 40% of gasoline-powered passenger cars and 70% of diesel-fueled trucks with vehicles that run on cleaner energy sources, such as methanol and electricity. The program would also cover boilers, turbines and internal combustion engines at industrial sites.

Tougher and more frequent "Smog Check" vehicle emissions inspections, reductions in smog producing chemicals in hair spray and room deodorizers and controls on or an outright ban on gasoline-powered lawn mowers are also contemplated.

For Lents, the Air Quality Management Plan represents the first opportunity to significantly shape the future course of air pollution policy in the South Coast Air Basin and, by extension, to influence state and federal policy.

The plan's unfolding, in turn, will also offer Southern Californians from environmentalists to business leaders one of their first opportunities to watch Lents be Lents.

Even though Lents has been executive officer a year, much of what has been done until now was already in the pipeline before his arrival, although Lents is given a good deal of credit for helping to push through the ride-sharing plan.

Lents' upbeat prediction that clean air standards can be met in 20 years may resemble an article of faith more than the considered judgment of an air quality official with the job of taking on the nation's most intractable smog problem.

Indeed, many of the specific clean air tactics proposed in the new Air Quality Management Plan were included in the 1982 version only to gather dust, be watered down, or defeated outright. Other plans, such as those dealing with tougher anti-pollution standards for cars, have already been initiated by the state Air Resources Board.

What makes the new plan different is not so much its content but what many see as Lents' commitment to follow through. New confidence is also being expressed in the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has been chastened by criticism and revitalized by a reorganization approved by the California Legislature.

Industry's Viewpoint

Still, the task ahead is formidable. Hard-won clean air gains such as fewer second-stage smog alerts may be overwhelmed by Southern California's burgeoning population, which is expected to grow by 5 million people in the next 20 years.

Moreover, the costs of future air pollution controls are certain to generate protests from industry.

Even some state and regional air quality officials who wish Lents well say privately that he may be promising more than he can deliver. Further, they said his success will depend in part on winning cooperation from other agencies who have the authority to act in some of the areas Lents wants regulated--a fact that Lents has acknowledged. "We can't do it alone," he said.

The district will be nearly a year behind schedule if and when the new Air Quality Management Plan is adopted in September--a fact that Mark Abramowitz of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air said is "extremely disappointing."

Nonetheless, Abramowitz said Lents' decision to mount a nine-month public relations and information campaign is important.

"For too long the district has dealt with air pollution on a strictly technical level and only industry has been brought in," he said. But, he said widespread public support and understanding is essential to any successful air quality strategy.

Lents, in a wide-ranging interview, made it clear that the district's past performance should not be seen as a prologue for the future.

He is clearly unimpressed by the district's record before assuming control a year ago. He charged that both the AQMD staff and the governing board had been too accommodating to industry. "It's my perception that on the whole our board in the last decade did not do the job they should have done," Lents said.

Specifically, Lents said the current "Smog Check" vehicle inspection and maintenance program is too weak. Testing standards should have been tougher and test methods more rigorous, including a so-called "loaded mode" test in which a vehicle is placed on a dynamometer which allows tailpipe emissions to be sampled while the car is running at highway speeds instead of idling in neutral. But the AQMD, which was given authority by the state to decide, chose a less stringent test.

Lents also assailed the district board, which hired him, for failing to adopt a ride-sharing program two years ago.

He said the Dec. 31, 1987, federal deadline for meeting clean air standards may have been unrealistic. But he said achieving only 15% of the air pollution reductions needed was "unacceptable."

Signs of Compromise

He also said the district staff had "second guessed" what the governing board would accept and compromised proposed clean air rules in discussions with industry representatives before the proposals even reached the board.

"Our role is not to mediate everything before it gets to the board. The board's job is to keep me from totally running amok. They're the elected officials. They're the people who have the pulse of the public out there. If I'm getting too far off the mark they need to rein me back in. I shouldn't be reining the process in before it even gets to them," Lents said.

If Lents follows through, it will mean that the board will be faced with making some of the hard choices--and taking the political heat.,

Lents also said that the district had been dishonest with the public, painting rosy pictures of clean air gains while making no demands on the everyday citizen to pitch in.

Still, he said the district is the only institution, public or private, in a strong position to exert leadership.

A Duty to Lead

"If we are not the leaders in improving air quality, who will? Industry is not going to do it. The individual who's trying to get through their daily life is not going to be it. The environmentalists in this area are, I think, not very strong, and (are) disorganized. So if there's going to be some leadership it's got to be on our part," he said.

He said that well-meaning elected officials can shrink from taking a stand for clean air, such as supporting a ride-sharing lane on the Ventura freeway, because they fear it will cost them votes.

While environmental groups may be weak and disorganized, Lents said they serve as the "conscience of the agency." He compared business and industrial interests to a tempter.

"It's like when you're dieting. You know, they're the side that says, 'Aw, come on, you can give in' and your conscience says, 'Noooo, don't get a hamburger today. Get a salad.' "

"They're willing to go out of their way . . . to defeat you," he said.

"I don't think environmentalists are always right but I think my overall goals are more in tune with theirs than they are with most industries," Lents said.

A Matter of Choice

He said if he had to make a choice between a vibrant economy and clean air, he would lean toward clean air.

Nonetheless, Lents said that clean-air goals cannot be achieved without the cooperation of business and industry. "You can learn a lot from industry. That's why it's important to negotiate with them," Lents said. And, he said the district must bargain in good faith.

Recently, for example, as the district board prepared to vote on the ride-sharing plan, Lents calmly opposed an amendment that would have raised the average vehicle occupancy goals.

"It broke my heart to (oppose) it, but I felt like we had bargained in good faith. I don't expect industry to like me or be supportive of the agency so much. But I want them to be able to tell you and other people that we deal with them in good faith," he said.

At the same time, Lents said industry has been known to trade on "misinformation" to defeat air pollution control rules. "That's industry's greatest weapon," Lents said. He specifically referred to industry studies which warned of adverse health effects caused by proposed new controls on diesel-fueled electrical co-generators and formaldehyde emissions from methanol fuel.

Question of Proportion

"The formaldehyde was blown out of proportion. It takes a lot of gall to take benzene, a known human carcinogen, and purposely put it in gasoline to increase the octane and then go out and knock methanol," Lents said.

Lents grinned when he was asked if he knew what business interests thought of him. "I don't know. I feel like that's irrelevant information. I've got a job to do. I wish everybody would like me, but I can't be put off from that job because some people don't. Sometimes, it's best not to know."

During the last year Lents, 44, has been taking careful note of how the district operates, acquainted himself with the complexities of the politics of smog in the South Coast Air Basin, and carried out a major reorganization of the executive staff in preparation for the fight ahead. Lents, a 6-foot, 6-inch Tennessean, holds a doctorate in physics and was previously director of the Colorado Health Department's air pollution control division.

Clearly, Lents' hand has been strengthened by a convergence of events, including the Legislature's approval of a bill vesting the district with new authority and a reorganized board. The new board members are generally viewed by environmentalists as more sympathetic to clean air goals than their predecessors. And, said Lents, the new board "doesn't have to apologize for its past actions."

Among the district's new powers is the authority to ban heavy-duty trucks from freeways during rush hours and to require businesses to gradually convert their fleets to cleaner burning vehicles.

No Longer Untried

Lents' relationship with the board will also change. No longer the untried, untested "new kid on the block" facing experienced incumbents, Lents will be working with new members who will be looking to him for leadership. In a word, Lents can set the agenda.

"Clearly, we (staff) have got to provide the full leadership, the picture of clean air. We've got to tell them how it can be done, not how it can't be done," said Lents.

Bill Sessa of the state Air Resources Board, which at times has been critical of the district, observed: "I think he's got the district staff organized the way he wants it. I just see him as being politically very savvy, very willing to take advantage of past criticisms of the district, using that criticism as a platform and say we've got to change and being real aggressive in getting what he wants. His personal style, I think, is a little deceptive. He comes across as being quiet, unassuming. But he's sharp. He's a lot sharper than he lets on sometimes."

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