Ballyhooed Irvine 'Ban' on CFCs Not So Clear-Cut

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the bright, airy conference room at the Irvine Civic Center, the atmosphere was anything but tense as businessmen and city officials recently negotiated the details of this city's ballyhooed ban on chemicals that damage the Earth's ozone layer.

And for good reason. Business leaders who were initially outraged by last year's City Council vote to outlaw emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals by July 1 now find they have little to fear.

That's because the word ban does not accurately describe what Irvine has done with the ozone-depleting chemicals in question. Although Mayor Larry Agran and the city have drawn accolades from environmentalists around the world for getting tough on CFCs, the law has so many loopholes that it will force few Irvine businesses to make major changes in the way they operate.

"The whole thing has been handled very well," said Owen Bevan, a Western Digital Corp. vice president who helped draft the detailed CFC rules that Irvine's City Council will consider next week.

Companies that can still use CFCs in their manufacturing processes in Irvine after July 1 include:

Manufacturers of medical devices regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration, a category that includes the city's two largest CFC users.

Defense contractors, several of whom are also among Irvine's major CFC users.

Any company that uses less than 55 gallons per year.

Any company that can show that "no technically or economically feasible alternative" to CFCs is available.

Other companies may also slip through the cracks, because the city has not yet identified the vast majority of businesses that will be affected by the new rules.

And while many firms are taking steps to curb CFC usage, they said such cutbacks began several years ago and have little to do with Irvine's initiative. Agran, however, says they would be moving much more slowly without the law.

These problems have given ammunition to Agran's political opponents, who claim the mayor has reaped an undeserved harvest of national publicity on the CFC issue. Irvine Councilwoman Sally Anne Sheridan, who is opposing Agran in the upcoming mayoral election, charged that the law is "useless" and reflects "a public relations purpose rather than a real concern about changing the way people do business."

Agran readily acknowledged that the CFC ordinance falls short of a total ban and estimated that emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals in Irvine would initially be cut by somewhere between 20% and 50%.

"We are not requiring the impossible," he said. "But we will require what is possible." And he notes that exempted firms will still have to implement CFC recycling and recapturing systems.

Michael S. Brown, Irvine's environmental program administrator whose hiring was decreed by the ordinance, said that all companies that receive exemptions will also have to show they are looking for alternatives.

"They will be forced to at least try them out," Brown said. "We will be an example of how you can structure a regulatory program that promotes innovation."

Environmentalists, indeed, still stand behind the law. David Doniger, director of the ozone protection project at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Counsel, said a CFC cut of the magnitude predicted by Agran would be quite impressive.

"If the steps taken in Irvine were taken everywhere, that would be a very significant environmental benefit," he said.

Doniger also noted that because businesses prefer uniform laws, local ordinances have the indirect benefit of encouraging support for national legislation.

Agran said it was the lack of strong national and international action on CFCs, combined with the fact that Irvine has many businesses that are heavy users of the chemicals, that led him to propose the CFC ordinance last year.

Although the serious threat posed by CFCs was clearly identified in the 1970s by UC Irvine professor F. Sherwood Rowland, the chemicals are still widely used as solvents for cleaning electronic parts, as coolants for air-conditioning systems and as foam-making agents. Some substitute chemicals, most notably 1,1,1, trichlorothane, also known as methyl chloroform, have also been identified as ozone-depleting compounds, though they are less damaging than CFCs.

An international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol calls for a 50% cut in CFC use by 2000, and it will probably be strengthened later this year to a total ban by that date. The South Coast Air Quality Management District policy announced earlier this month called for the phase-out of CFCs by 1997.

Agran said the city decided to move more quickly, requiring a total phase-out (with exemptions) by July 1, because "what's required by the Montreal Protocol is so slow that it provides very little benefit in the near term."

But many companies, in Irvine and elsewhere, are moving to cut CFC use even in the absence of legal requirements. They are motivated by a dramatic rise in CFC prices and, in the case of the electronics industry, harsh criticism for increasing CFC use in the early 1980s, after the dangers were known.

Medical equipment vendor Bentley Laboratories, the largest CFC emitter in Irvine according to Environmental Protection Agency figures from 1988 (the latest available numbers), is exempt from the Irvine ban because it makes FDA--regulated devices--though it will have to install some CFC recycling equipment.

Still, the company says it has reduced its CFC output from 350,000 pounds in 1987 to 89,000 pounds in 1989, and projects just 50,000 pounds of emissions for 1990.

"We've had an aggressive corporate policy of reducing CFC emissions, at Bentley and elsewhere," said Geoffrey Fenton, a spokesman for Bentley's parent firm, Baxter International. "It's not directly related to Irvine--it would have happened anyway."

Shiley Inc., which also makes medical products and is the city's second-largest CFC emitter, is in a similar situation. Spokesman Robert J. Fauteux said the company had made large cuts in CFC use in 1987 and 1988.

Fauteux noted that Shiley had publicly supported passage of the Irvine ordinance, and said the firm would be spending $500,000 on equipment for the recycling of CFCs used in sterilizing medical equipment. He could not provide a figure on the company's current emissions.

Hughes Aircraft Co.'s Connecting Devices Division, another large CFC user, is exempt from the Irvine ordinance because it is a defense contractor. Military specifications requiring CFC use takes precedence over the local law. Defense contractors, including Hughes, have pledged to work with the Pentagon to eliminate such requirements, but that is expected to take some time.

Still, Hughes says it has been spurred to action by the Irvine law. A Hughes spokesman said the division is researching both substitute chemicals and product modifications to cut the 17,000 pounds of CFCs and the 18,000 pounds of methyl chloroform that it emits each year.

Parker Hannifin, another Irvine defense contractor, "started looking (for CFC alternatives) before the ordinance was passed," according to environmental manager Kevin Clarke. The company has succeeded in finding alternatives for some applications, but will also be applying for an exemption, he added.

Some Irvine companies have avoided CFC trouble by thinking ahead. Western Digital once used more than a million pounds of CFCs annually to clean printed circuit boards. Alex Alexander, vice president for board engineering operations, said the company began the search for alternatives several years ago.

"You had to have your head in the ground not to see that these chemicals would be regulated out of existence," Alexander said. The company undertook a program to perfect a soap-and-water washing system that can clean the boards by using a high-pressure water spray in conjunction with a specially developed, water-soluble soldering paste.

The system was put in place at all Western Digital plants around the world in January, 1989, Alexander said, well before the Irvine ban was passed. The company still uses some methyl chloroform in one of its chip-making operations, but it is mostly transformed into a harmless substance by the process itself.

The remaining emissions of methyl chloroform fall well within the 55-gallon " de minimus " exemption that is contained in the draft regulations on the Irvine ordinance. Brown noted that the de minimus rule was meant for "small users, not small uses," but Western Digital will benefit all the same.

Agran acknowledged that all the signs pointed to CFC cutbacks even without prodding from municipalities. Still, he said, "industry (officials) would not be moving as quickly as they are without pressure."

Small businesses may have more trouble coping with the Irvine rules. Commercial air-conditioning and appliance-service companies will have to invest in coolant recycling equipment, which Brown said would cost auto air-conditioning service shops $2,000 to $3,000 and commercial air-conditioning service firms $3,000 to $4,000.

(Residential air-conditioners use a type of coolant that is not affected by the Irvine law.)

The biggest problem for these companies may be the lack of detailed information of what is expected of them. Robert Vlick, service manager for Air Conditioning Co. Inc. in Glendale, one of the largest air-conditioning service firms in the state, said 14 of the company's 110 trucks were already equipped with recycling equipment.

"We're completely capable of doing what needs to be done," he said, "but at this point we have no information on what we need to do in Irvine."

Frank J. Ivy, a civil engineer with Ebasco Environmental in Santa Ana who is representing the Irvine Chamber of Commerce in discussions about the ordinance, said most small and medium-sized businesses "are not really aware of the requirements." Getting them the necessary information, he added, was an important priority for the city.

Brown acknowledges that a major educational effort is necessary to inform businesses of their obligations--and more information should be available once the draft regulations are approved. "We want to have some sort ot technical assistance or outreach program to help businesses," he said. But no timetable for such a program is yet in place.

And Brown will also be busy over the next year developing a systematic inventory of CFC use in the city, and reviewing and processing the numerous exemption applications that are expected.

Despite the numerous difficulties, Brown is confident the ordinance will have an positive impact. "We're saying, maybe we can do something that will be positive and not cause a lot of disruption," he said.

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