Fanning the Flames : Barbecue Assn. Fights Air Quality Board Over Starter Fluid Ban

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As this year's picnic season approaches, there are those who want to skewer more than morsels of sirloin, fish and chicken.

The Barbecue Industry Assn. is raking Southern California air pollution officials over the coals to keep them from imposing a ban on the sale of charcoal lighter fluid in Los Angeles.

Along with its usual springtime flurry of new recipes for teriyaki burgers and reviews of the latest in hibachi grilling techniques, the trade group is cranking out legal motions and courthouse briefs against the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The El Monte-based agency has ordered the barbecue industry to begin phasing out charcoal-lighting fuel products so a total ban can go into effect next Jan. 1.

Retailers in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties caught selling starter fluid or self-lighting charcoal after that risk a $25,000 fine.

For eight out of 10 patio cooks in Los Angeles, starter fluid or pre-soaked coals are a must. That's because most briquettes won't quickly ignite unless they're doused first with petroleum-based fuel, according to manufacturers.

The Los Angeles Basin is the nation's biggest back-yard barbecue market, industry leaders say. More important, it is the trend-setter for cookouts in the rest of the country.

But air pollution experts say that up to 5,400 gallons of starter fluid a day are squirted on the millions of back-yard grills used in the Los Angeles area during warm summer weekends. That results in about 4 tons of pollutants per day being spewed into the air--which they say is the same amount of pollution that is generated by the Southland's entire aerospace industry.

Word of the pending crackdown hit the 50-member Barbecue Industry Assn. last year with the impact of a blizzard on the Fourth of July.

"We said, 'Gee whiz, what's this all about?' " said Sandy Burton, executive director of the 33-year-old Illinois-based group. "Our first reaction was how in the world can you talk about lighter fluid where there are so many other causes of air pollution?

"We don't get involved in a lot of controversial things. We promote the barbecue lifestyle. . . . We've never really gone on the attack before."

Indeed, the closest that the barbecuers had come to raising eyebrows was the time they sent out press releases and recipes urging that traditional Thanksgiving feasts be barbecued outside.

"The secret to cooking the best holiday turkey ever is right in your back yard. It's your charcoal grill," the group proclaimed.

Association President Arthur Seeds stood shivering on his own Naperville, Ill., patio on a subfreezing November day to pose for a newspaper photo that depicted him barbecuing his own bird.

"If it's cold outside, just add more briquettes," he cheerfully advised.

But an even chillier reception was in store for the association last summer when it set out to protect the Southern California starter fluid business.

The group sought to persuade the air quality board that the proposed crackdown was unnecessary and unjust. The association dipped into its $350,000 barbecue promotions budget and hired a political consulting firm from Washington to map out a lobbying campaign. The Easterners decided to organize a telephone and letter-writing effort that would direct consumers' complaints directly to board members.

But the project flared up in the association's face like starter fluid on a pile of burning coals.

The mail campaign turned out to have a mass-produced look. The telephone calls sounded to some like they were being computer-generated.

At the next board meeting, air quality district Director Henry Wedaa of Orange County angrily tossed a stack of the mail to the floor. He characterized them as form-like letters which mistakenly suggested that charcoal--not starter fluid--was being banned.

Carole Beswick, a board member from Redlands, complained that her telephone had been tied up for days by electronic telephone calls orchestrated by the association.

"It was very poorly done," said Beswick, a Redland's City Council member who is mayor pro tem this year. "It was interfering with business in the city manager's office. To me, it was an incredibly clumsy way to make an approach to us."

Barbecue association member Patrick Meehan of Kingsford Charcoal apologized that "our public relations campaign was not well-taken."

Nonetheless, air board members voted 10 to 1 on Oct. 5 to snuff out what had become part of a $6-million annual business in the four-county Los Angeles Basin.

"They got caught with their pants down," Sal Chala, owner of the El Segundo-based Happy Jack Charcoal Co., said of the barbecue association.

Chala produces a paraffin-coated charcoal that he said can be ignited without starter fluid. He describes himself as "a renegade" who is not a member of the barbecue trade group--which he said "never dreamed the new rules would pass."

Shaken by the starter fluid ban, association leaders quickly junked their East Coast-led offensive and hurried to find West Coast experts for damage control. They settled on the politically connected Los Angeles law firm of Latham & Watkins.

Its attorneys have filed a Superior Court lawsuit in hopes of overturning the starter fluid ban. A trial has been scheduled for March 26.

Lawyer Juli Wilson Marshall said the barbecue association will argue in court that air pollution officials ordered the ban "without meaningful testing, or even the development of a test procedure."

Beyond that, Marshall charged, the air quality district has vastly overestimated the amount of pollution caused by starter fluids and has set the stage for widespread use of a dangerous substitute: gasoline.

The lawsuit charges that the barbecue industry needs sufficient time to "reformulate" starter fluid compounds to eliminate any worrisome vapor emissions.

"The real focus of the lawsuit is that the industry really believes if you are going to make decisions to ban products, it should be done on the basis of a rigorous scientific evaluation," said Sandy Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Clorox Co., which manufactures starter fluid and self-starting briquettes that will be outlawed by the ban.

But district officials predict that their prohibition order will pass its legal test. They say that barbecuers can use electric charcoal igniters or inexpensive metal "chimney starters" that utilize burning wads of newspaper to light a pile of coals.

"We're confident it will be upheld," air quality district spokeswoman Claudia Keith said. "We do think it's a good rule. Why should we use something that contributes to smog when there are economical, readily available alternatives?"

Others in the barbecue business agree.

"I can't see where the big stink is," said Chuck Ballinger, owner of Fireside & Patio Center, a San Gabriel barbecue supply shop. "This isn't going to hurt the barbecue industry--just the petroleum companies, the people making the fuel. What can be easier to use than the little chimneys and crumpled-up newspaper?"

Barbecue association leaders hope the fuss dies down so they can get back to their real work.

"All we were doing was trying to get people to be happy in their back yard," Executive Director Burton said.

"When people pick up Redbook and McCall's in May and see new barbecue products and get excited, everybody wins."

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