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Mayor Asks Delay on Smog Rules : Pollution: Riordan plan would put off some tough measures for several years to reduce impact on airlines and shipping. It triggers fierce debate.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Jumping at the eleventh hour into the fray over cleaning up the Southland’s smoggy skies, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan is pressuring air quality officials to delay for several years stringent measures aimed at eliminating one of the region’s most dangerous air pollutants.

Released in detail this week, the mayor’s proposal immediately triggered a fierce debate, pitted the city against its neighbors in the Inland Empire and prompted an outcry by environmentalists and top staff members at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, who called the plan flawed and potentially illegal.

But despite the opposition, the plan from the mayor’s office--which until now has been mute on most clean-air issues--has spurred enough political friction that the AQMD board is expected to delay its vote, slated for Friday, on an updated 20-year smog plan. Under federal law, both the AQMD and the state Air Resources Board must approve a new plan by November or face a freeze on federal highway funds and other economic sanctions.

Designed to soften the economic impact of a clean-air plan on the city, Riordan’s alternative plan addresses most of the smog problem but delays many measures proposed by the AQMD to reduce particulates--the fine pieces of diesel soot and dust that can lodge in lungs and trigger respiratory disease.

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The mayor’s goal is to ease the burden on airlines, ships, trains and diesel trucks in the four-county basin, which under the AQMD plan would have to cut the nitrogen oxides that contribute to both smog and particulate pollution.

Many business and labor groups worry that the proposed rules by the AQMD--which also are contained in a plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--would devastate the Southland’s economy by putting its interstate commerce at a competitive disadvantage with other markets.

Instead, under Riordan’s plan, the AQMD and EPA would have to come up with other solutions for particulates, including some that could shift the burden largely to the Inland Empire. Among the mayor’s suggestions are tougher controls on dairy farms, where manure piles emit ammonia, and on “fugitive dust,” particles that blow off rural lots during windstorms.

AQMD Deputy Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein called the Riordan plan “seriously flawed” because it fails to illustrate how particulates would be cleaned up enough to meet federal law and state requirements, could harm public health and kill the region’s dairy industry.

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“At this point in time we don’t believe it is a viable option,” Wallerstein said, adding that Riordan is ignoring a state law requiring the air pollution agency to clean up particulates as quickly as possible.

Veronica Kun, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the mayor is trying to skirt responsibility in cleaning up pollution.

“We think the mayor’s plan is irresponsible,” Kun said. “It is kind of the manana strategy--do it later and do it somewhere else. They want to shift the problem out to the cows and avoid doing anything in the city to control the emissions.”

Calling it the “most important single issue for the economy of California,” Riordan said his office became involved because some proposals, if unchanged, would force airlines to reduce flights at Los Angeles International Airport by 25% and shippers to turn away from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports and head for others with no pollution controls.

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Riordan and his aides say their strategy still will meet federal clean air deadlines but has a better chance of being implemented because it would delay the cost of achieving clean air. The city estimates that initially it could reduce the $5.4-billion annual price tag on the agency’s plan to $2.2 billion.

Essentially, the city wants a plan that reduces pollution just enough to meet 1994 federal mandates for ozone, the main ingredient of smog--but no other air pollutants. In contrast, the AQMD wants to satisfy all pollution requirements with its new plan, including proposals on particulates that are not due until 1997.

Riordan’s staff is arguing that the AQMD wants to reduce nitrogen oxides by 79% when only a 45% reduction is now required to meet health standards for ozone. His office says planning for further reductions can come later.

“We have no agenda here to ‘just say no’ to clean air,” Deputy Mayor Michael Keeley said.

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AQMD board Chairman Henry Wedaa and board member Marvin Braude said they will urge their colleagues on Friday to postpone a vote on the AQMD plan so that the mayor’s proposal can be studied. The board’s public hearing, set for 9:30 a.m., will continue as scheduled.

Last week, Wedaa told Riordan’s aides that he would not seek a delay in the vote but reconsidered after pressure from city officials. “We are in the process of giving it a fair and honest look,” Wedaa, a Yorba Linda councilman, said Tuesday.

He cautioned, however, that the vote should not be delayed past September because the AQMD has little time to produce a plan.

Under federal Clean Air Act deadlines, the AQMD and state Air Resources Board have until November to submit an updated plan to the EPA that outlines how the region will achieve an ozone health standard by 2010. At the same time, the EPA is under a federal court order to come up with its own plan by Feb. 15 that would go into effect if local efforts fail.

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David Howekamp, head of EPA’s regional air and toxics division, said the federal agency is reviewing the mayor’s proposal.

Riordan acknowledged that the city’s idea comes late, but said his staff didn’t fully understand the economic impact of the proposals until May. His office then hired a consultant to come up with an alternative.

“It’s unfortunate, but so much of what government does is when you’re right on the brink of falling over a cliff,” Riordan said.

Riordan conceded that the AQMD and EPA could miss their November and February deadlines by a few months. But he said that violating the deadlines is a better option than approving a plan that would severely harm Los Angeles’ economy. He also said the Clinton Administration would be reluctant to penalize California with economic sanctions if the deadlines are not met.

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But AQMD board member Norton Younglove, a Riverside County supervisor, called that a “spit-in-your-eye-and-stand-back approach. I don’t think that’s a sound tactic for government. Frankly, we have to remember what our objective is. To clean up the air.”

Younglove said the mayor’s plan could unfairly place the burden of controlling particulates on the region’s inland valleys, when most pollution comes from Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“Los Angeles in effect says, ‘Let us pollute all we want upwind and make the reductions down there in the inland valleys.’ Frankly, the opposite thing should be done because we in the inland valleys face the most health problems,” Younglove said.

“Perhaps the mayor should go move in the part of the city that is an inland valley and then he would understand why many of us are concerned about the quality of the air.”

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Younglove said a strategy similar to Riordan’s piecemeal approach of reducing individual pollutants was proposed by the oil and utility industries almost a decade ago. The argument was rejected by the AQMD and state ARB in the late 1980s because it failed to address particulate pollution.

In Orange County, Ed Laird, chairman of the county Chamber of Commerce’s Environmental and Energy Committee, was supportive of Riordan’s plan.

“They mayor has come out with quite a few positive proposals, and we would approach this in a positive manner,” he said.

Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.

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