Smog: New Spirit

Southern California's biggest clean-air agency fairly hums with the sense of purpose and determination that it had in the 1960s when the region was showing the rest of the country what smog was and how to get rid of it.

The new spirit may sag a bit if industry digs in to oppose some of what the South Coast Air Quality Management District thinks must be done to put the sparkle back into the region's air. But for the time being it is enough that the agency is acting once again as though dirty air were serious business.

Part of the new look at the air-quality district is the work of its executive officer, James M. Lents, a soft-spoken physicist who has spent a year pulling together a new staff and scouting the territory. Some is the work of the California Legislature, which gave the district a new kit of regulatory tools during its last session.

Asked recently which way he would lean if he had to choose between a vibrant economy and clean air, Lents leaned toward clean air. He wants tighter testing of automobile smog controls, and he wants to get Californians more involved in clean air because some of what he thinks needs doing will mean modest changes in the way we live. He also said that it is not his job to feed soggy compromises to his board of directors, but rather that it is the board's job to "keep me from running totally amok."

The district board wasted no time in using one of its new enforcement tools, voting unanimously late last year for a ride-sharing program that the staff thinks will thin out the South Coast Air Basin's rush-hour traffic by as much as 25%.

Now the district is going after bigger game with a plan to shift 40% of all automobiles in the basin from gasoline either to electric batteries or to a clean fuel like methanol over the next 20 years. It would wean 70% of all trucks away from smoky diesel fuel.

Phase 1 of the plan, which calls for five years of experimenting with electric cars and alternative fuels, will go to the district board of directors for a vote Friday. The next step, perhaps as early as this year or next, would be to require fleet operators ranging from car-rental companies to buses to replace all vehicles that they retire after 1993 with clean-burning vehicles.

The last step in rejuvenating the air-quality agency will be a master plan that would tighten pollution controls on nearly anything that the agency could get its hands on. Some examples include banning gasoline-powered lawn mowers and stricter monitoring of smog controls on cars.

If there is a clash between the agency and industry, it will come over the master plan that Lents hopes will let Southern California, now the region with the smoggiest air in the nation, bask in air as clean as anyone's.

The arguments will not be as outlandish as some of those that clean-air advocates ran into in the pioneering phase of air-quality control. Nobody is likely to say this year, as was said in the 1950s, that smog comes from ozone falling out of the stratosphere, from nitrogen oxides blowing across the Pacific from smokestacks in Japan, or that, far from contributing to smog, automobile exhausts destroyed smog.

Air chemistry has come a long way since then, and nobody quarrels with the fact that the most serious manifestation of smog, ozone, comes from hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides cooking together in sunlight. Hydrocarbons escape into the air from gasoline pumps, from dry cleaners, even from oil-based paint drying on houses. Nitrogen oxides are created by burning fossil fuels, whether in sports cars or power plants.

No, the arguments will be not about what needs doing but about which pollutants to tackle first and which of them to leave until later. What industry is likely to argue is that hydrocarbons should be attacked first, leaving the oxides for later. Computer models are still struggling to settle the question of whether that makes more sense than attacking both. The returns will not be in for weeks.

Meanwhile, the air board should make things hum some more on Friday by approving the plan for electric cars and cleaner fuel testing, taking one more opportunity to remind Southern California that it considers dirty air serious business.

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