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House Passes Major Changes to Clean Air Act

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The House overwhelmingly passed a major revision of the Clean Air Act late Wednesday that includes a precedent-setting pilot program to mandate the sale of clean-fueled cars in California.

Tougher than a version already approved by the Senate, the House bill was adopted by a vote of 401 to 21. Lawmakers brushed aside the threat of a White House veto to include a provision granting extra unemployment insurance to workers who lose their jobs as a result of the bill’s stricter clean air regulations.

A number of other strengthening amendments, including a provision sought by California members to tighten regulations on offshore pollution sources such as oil platforms, also were adopted by overwhelming votes. The votes came after House negotiators forged the last of several key compromises to avert what might otherwise have been long and acrimonious floor fights.

The first revision of the nation’s clean air laws in 13 years, the omnibus legislation would tighten limits on automobile emissions to free all American cities of smog within 20 years and impose technological controls on factories to reduce the risk of cancer from the chemicals they release. It also, for the first time, would strictly regulate emissions from coal-burning power plants that cause acid rain.

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The bill must still be reconciled with the version passed April 3 by the Senate, 89 to 11. But the House’s historic action on Wednesday all but assured that, after more than a decade of legislative stalemate, new clean air legislation will become law this year.

“The House has listened to the will of the people rather than the special interests. The House bill is better than the Senate’s,” said Daniel Weiss, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “Now we’ve got the makings of a masterpiece in conference, but it will all depend on whether we can put the right pieces together,” he added.

Like the Senate bill, the House measure is largely the product of a series of hard-won, complex compromises bridging decade-old divisions among environmental, economic and regional interests.

Unlike the Senate bill, however, the House version contains stronger provisions on clean-fueled cars, stationary sources of smog and offshore oil pollution.

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“We got a good, strong bill . . . a bill with teeth that will force a real reduction in the pollution that hurts people’s health and damages the environment,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). He, along with Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), was the principal architect of the agreements that finally allowed the bill to coast through the floor without serious opposition.

The most difficult of these agreements were negotiated well before the bill came to the floor, in closed committee rooms where Waxman and Dingell, longtime adversaries in the clean air debate, hammered out compromises on automobile tailpipe emissions, smog control and measures to spread the cost of acid rain controls.

Clean fuels--the one major area that remained in dispute and seemed certain to provoke a showdown between industry supporters and clean air advocates--was resolved only moments before it came up for a vote.

A proposal by Waxman and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) would have mandated the nationwide sale of 1 million cars built to run on non-gasoline fuels. Under the compromise, that plan was dropped in favor of a five-year pilot program for California, which already has plans to use clean-fueled vehicles as part of its clean air efforts.

The new vehicles would be phased into the California market starting with 150,000 cars in model year 1994. That number would increase to 300,000 cars in 1997, with the aim of getting 1 million clean-fueled cars onto California freeways by the year 1998.

Nationwide, the compromise would require only that fleet vehicles and mass transit buses in the country’s 31 smoggiest cities be included in the clean-fuels program. But other states could opt into the program for private vehicles in 1999 if the Environmental Protection Agency judges the California pilot project a success.

“This is a historic day for the people of Southern California,” Lewis said. “Once again California is leading the national clean air debate.”

The only California congressman to vote against the legislation was Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton). Not voting was Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield).

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Another House-passed amendment important to California was one that would put coastal pollution sources under EPA’s jurisdiction and apply stricter onshore pollution standards to offshore sources. Offered by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), it was adopted after the negotiators defused what would otherwise have been considerable opposition by agreeing to exempt Texas, Louisiana and Alabama from its jurisdiction.

Dismissing a White House veto threat, the House also included in the bill a five-year, $250-million unemployment assistance package to help some of the thousands of workers who could lose their jobs as a result of the impact that tougher clean air regulations are expected to have on the coal mining, steel and chemical industries.

The Bush Administration has threatened to veto the bill over any provision that raises the total yearly cost to business, government and individuals above $21 billion. The Administration says the real cost of the unemployment package offered by Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr. (D-W.Va.) could add billions of dollars per year to the price of the legislation because it would create an open-ended liability for the federal government.

But proponents of the amendment, which was overwhelmingly adopted by a vote of 274 to 146, dismissed those estimates as exaggerated.


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