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Continuing Air Pollution Predicted for Many Cities

Times Staff Writer

Even full deployment of the best pollution control technology now available would leave dozens of American cities with unhealthy air by the turn of the century, the Office of Technology Assessment reported Monday in a gloomy assessment of the prospects for reducing urban smog.

The findings by the nonpartisan congressional research agency appear to challenge the optimistic predictions made by the Bush Administration, which projects that smog levels in all but three American cities--including Los Angeles--will meet federal health standards by the year 2000 if its proposed clean air legislation is enacted by Congress.

The Bush plan stops well short of requiring cities to adopt the maximum pollution control measures now available and it contains no mandate for development of new technology.

“I don’t see how they’re going to do it,” said Robert Friedman, the main author of the OTA report. “I hope we are wrong and they are right but I fear that will not be the case.”

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On behalf of the Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged that the measures Bush would mandate nationwide are not themselves sufficient to reduce smog at the projected pace. But the EPA emphasized that the Bush plan requires the nation’s dirtiest cities to take additional “strong action” to supplement the federal program.

Such steps are mandated under a provision of the Bush proposal that would require cities to reduce their smog-building emissions by 3% a year. If the OTA assessment is correct, such a rule could force dozens of cities to adopt Draconian pollution control measures to meet the federal deadline.

But the Administration has put little emphasis on this provision and many environmentalists doubt that such a drastic injunction would be enforced.

In another implicit criticism of the Bush plan, the OTA report described the substitution of methanol for gasoline as the most expensive of the 60 pollution control methods it studied. The use by automobiles of methanol and other alternative fuels is a central element of the Bush proposal.

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The report said as many as half of the 96 American cities whose smog levels now exceed federal standards could remain out of compliance at the turn of the century unless they can develop and implement new ways to reduce pollution.

“In the worst areas, even the most costly and stringent of available measures will not lower emission levels sufficiently to meet the standard,” it said.

Among the cities most likely to have trouble in meeting the turn-of-the-century deadline for clean air under the Bush plan are Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, OTA officials said.

The Bush plan would allow Los Angeles, New York and Houston--the nation’s three most severely polluted cities--an additional 10 years to bring smog levels down to healthful levels.

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Complete details of the Bush anti-smog proposal--part of a broader attempt to reduce smog, acid rain, and toxic pollution under a revitalized Clean Air Act--are expected to be unveiled later this week when the President sends the legislation to Capitol Hill.

Administration officials already have made clear, however, that the legislation will stop short of calling for the deployment of the maximum pollution controls now available. For example, automobile emission standards would remain far less stringent than those already in effect in California.

The OTA report, which comes as Congress launches another round of contentious debate over the Clean Air Act, said lawmakers should recognize that Los Angeles and other severely polluted cities face a long road to healthy air and thus should not set unrealistic deadlines for compliance.

Instead, it recommended that Congress set interim goals for pollution reduction to ensure that cities adopt effective pollution control plans and make steady progress toward cleaner air.

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Ozone, the nation’s single worst air pollution problem, affects areas in which more than 100 million Americans live. Of those people, the OTA study said, about 21 million are exposed each year during outdoor exercise to ozone levels above the federal standard. About one-quarter of those people live in the Los Angeles area, the report said.

Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds mix with nitrogen oxide, another industrial pollutant, in the presence of sunlight.

The OTA reached its conclusions by analyzing 60 available methods for reducing volatile organic compound emissions, which come mainly from cars, chemical plants and refineries and from a wide variety of solvents.

POLLUTION IMPACT--The short-term effects of air pollution are well known; now experts are looking at long-term harm. View, Page 1

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