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Fresh Start on Smog

Years of analyzing what Southern California must do to clean up its air and agonizing over whether that would be asking too much will come to a show of hands Friday. The region’s chief smog control agency should demonstrate overwhelmingly that it is ready to do what is necessary to make the dirtiest air in the United States as clean as the air over industrial centers anywhere. The region has no choice.

Cleaning up Southern California’s air is not just another metropolitan beauty contest. Scientists have known for years that smog is unhealthful, but there was a time when it was possible to think that applied mostly to people with asthma or other respiratory problems. A little over two years ago, new studies demonstrated that smog could hurt the breathing ability even of well-conditioned athletes. Any thought of relaxing health standards promptly went by the boards.

Directors of the South Coast Air Quality Management District will be voting Friday on a 20-year air quality management plan. It is more a statement of goals than a rigid blueprint. For example, the amount of ozone in the air over Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties now is three times as high as scientists think people can tolerate. The plan’s goals are to reduce ozone to safe levels, along with other ingredients of smog such as hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, dust and soot, known in air quality jargon as particulate matter.

Along with the goals will come long lists of pollution-control measures that the air quality district calculates will put Southern California on a path toward meeting them. The list ranges from expanded car pooling, changes in land-use planning to get more housing into urban areas and more jobs into the suburbs, cleaner automobile engines and tighter pollution controls on power plants to staggered working hours and cleaner-running trucks and buses.

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Scarcely a month will go by during the next 20 years without one or more of these control measures being voted into law like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as a means of tightening up ever harder on air pollution.

Nothing on the scale of the Friday proposal has been attempted in this country or any other. Many industries, and their employees, feel threatened, if not by the plan itself then by the unknown. In an article elsewhere in these pages, writers worry that minority workers are at particular risk, in danger of being sacrificed to a single overriding concern for clean air.

It is a reasonable concern, and it will have to be addressed while the clean air plan is being implemented.

The wording of the final draft of the plan takes pains to reassure the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce--which now supports the plan--and others that the smog bureaucracy is not wedded to any particular control hardware. Before approving each new regulation to implement the plan, the district will estimate its effect on the region’s economy with emphasis on the job supply. With advance notice, new technology might be devised to save jobs in polluting industries that might otherwise be lost.

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One of the most important things about the new air quality plan is that even a unanimous vote in its favor Friday would not set it in concrete. By law,it must be reviewed at least every three years; in practice, the review probably will neverstop, much the way the navigator of a ship never stops checking maps and stars to stay on course.

But no matter how steady the course, the ship must first sail to get where it is going. As with the ship, the most important thing for the plan is to leave port at once.


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