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Clean Air Bill’s Demise May Slow Efforts in L.A. Basin

Times Staff Writer

Unable to break a deadlock between competing interests, the chief U.S. Senate sponsor of legislation to revamp and strengthen the 1977 Clean Air Act said he is dropping plans to win congressional approval of the bill this year.

Failure to pass the bill will not immediately affect the South Coast Air Basin’s plans to proceed with more restrictions on polluters.

But James M. Lents, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said Wednesday that it will make it all that more difficult to clean up the air in the South Coast Air Basin. “We’re very disappointed,” Lents said.

Tougher Restrictions

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The bill, long sought by environmentalists and the AQMD, would have imposed tougher restrictions to control acid and on vehicle emissions. It would also have revised deadlines for the nation’s smoggest cities to comply with federal deadlines for meeting clean air standards for urban ozone and carbon monoxide.

“There has not been sufficient willingness to compromise. As a result, we will do nothing,” Sen. George Mitchell (D-Me.), the chief sponsor of the bill, told the Senate on Tuesday.

Failure to enact a new bill specifying new deadlines for cities to comply with clean air standards could result in lawsuits challenging how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency carries out the existing law.

“I think what you will see is an increasing amount of litigation because the law is so unclear,” EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas told reporters during a Los Angeles visit Tuesday. His view was backed by Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board who said, “The Clean Air Act will be what the courts interpret it to be.”

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The existing law set December, 1987, as the deadline for urban areas to meet clean air standards. Congress then extended that deadline by eight months while it sought to approve a new clean air act.

But as many as 100 areas in the country, including Los Angeles, failed to meet either deadline. By failing to enact a new bill with a new deadline, the EPA said it was left with no choice but to impose a construction ban on all new factories or other sources of air pollution in the four-county South Coast Air Basin that would emit more than 100 tons of pollutants daily.

Sanctions Not Imposed

At the same time, the EPA has declined to impose tougher sanctions allowed by the existing law, including a cut-off in federal sewer and highway funds. It has also been reluctant to impose a federal cleanup plan on the basin as the law required. That failure resulted in a lawsuit filed by Mark Abramowitz of the Coalition for Clean Air.

Ever since 1982, Congress has attempted to revise the Clean Air Act. This year, however, various provisions stirred opposition from two influential members of Congress.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) opposed provisions that would have required auto makers in his state to reduce emissions from cars and trucks. And, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia opposed acid rain control provisions that would have hurt coal producers in his state. Burning high sulfur coal in power plants is a major source of acid rain.

Acid rain is the term given to sulfur and nitrogen oxides, produced in the burning of coal and other industrial processes, that are carried aloft by air currents and then returned to the surface, often in the form of rain or snow, in other parts of the country.

Difficult to Meet Standards

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Lents said the failure to enact a bill will make it more difficult to meet clean air standards in the South Coast Air Basin.

He explained that while California vehicle emission standards are tougher than those proposed by Mitchell, “half of the heavy-duty trucks on our roads come from outside of California, and a certain percentage of cars belong to tourists and people moving here. We don’t make them sell their car when they move in.” The basin includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Other provisions would have required defense contractors throughout the country to work toward using paints and other coatings that are not as photochemically reactive, Lents said.


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