In a surprise development that allows California to retain control over combatting the Los Angeles region's smog, the Clinton Administration and environmentalists have signed a deal that postpones widely disliked federal clean-air measures until at least 1997.
The agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California environmental groups--expected to be unveiled today--is a major relief to Gov. Pete Wilson and hundreds of business groups that have lambasted the federal plan as a potential economic disaster for the state.
The EPA also is eager for the two-year reprieve, to avert what one top-ranking official called the "administrative nightmare" of the federal government being forced to unleash an array of strict and unpopular anti-smog measures on much of Southern California next month.
Facing a court order to craft a strategy to clean up California's air, the Clinton Administration last February proposed a dizzying range of measures aimed at virtually every source of air pollution in order to comply with health standards in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties by 2010, Ventura County by 2005 and Sacramento by 1999.
Industry and community leaders opposed to the measures waged a fierce campaign hoping to block the final federal implementation plan, or FIP, which is to be released on Feb. 14.
"There is every reason to expect that the FIP will never be implemented," EPA Assistant Administrator Mary Nichols told The Times on Thursday. "This represents a tangible effort on EPA's part, a significant gesture of good faith in our attempt to work with California."
The federal smog plan for California still must be completed and signed by EPA Administrator Carol Browner next month, but the two-year delay in enforcing its measures would give the EPA time to review an alternate clean-air plan crafted by state officials. If California's plan is accepted by the EPA, the state and local proposals approved by the Air Resources Board in November will replace the federal ones.
The deal reached Thursday after quiet negotiations essentially nullifies the federal plan since most of its provisions will probably never go into effect. It takes political heat off the Clinton Administration since implementation would be put off until after the next election, and then only as a backstop if California fails to do the job.
A notable exception, though, are some vehemently protested proposals that would force major changes in interstate transportation, which still falls under the EPA's sole jurisdiction. Next month, the EPA will finalize its rules for regulating aircraft, ships, trains, construction and farm equipment and interstate trucks in the Los Angeles Basin, Ventura and Sacramento.
The Coalition for Clean Air and the Sierra Club, which sued the EPA for not forcing state officials to clean up the air, agreed to the revised court order, citing problems with the federal plan. The groups prefer that air pollution policy be left in the hands of state and local agencies.
Cliff Gladstein, president of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air, predicted "a nightmare of entangled regulations and government run amok" if the federal government took over with its 1,600 pages of proposed anti-smog rules.
"We feel it would be an unmitigated disaster," Gladstein said. "It's in absolutely no one's interest to create a whole new governmental bureaucracy to administer air quality policy in California."
In legal papers to be sent to the court today, the two sides are asking U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp in Los Angeles to approve their agreement at a Feb. 6 hearing.
In return for the new terms, the environmental groups obtained a written commitment from the EPA to move quickly to review California's plan, which under law can take two years. The EPA also agreed to begin by June 30 the process of setting national exhaust standards for new heavy-duty trucks and other diesel engines by 2004.
The environmental groups filed their lawsuit in 1987 after California had violated the national Clean Air Act for 10 years by failing to draft a strategy to eliminate enough pollution to meet health standards for ozone and carbon monoxide. The intent of the suit was to force the EPA to crack down on the state and to adopt long-debated national rules targeting airlines, trucks and other interstate emissions sources.
But many environmental leaders now believe that the federal plan has become essentially a lost cause because the newly elected, anti-regulation Congress is likely to block it anyway. Environmentalists and the Clinton Administration fear the plan's unpopularity could trigger a backlash and give Congress an argument for overhaul of the 1990 Clean Air Act.
With the focus turned back to California, environmental groups are urging the Wilson Administration to make their smog plan more aggressive, primarily for heavy-duty trucks. Gladstein called the existing state air plan too weak to achieve healthful air because it relies heavily on an unfunded proposal to buy and scrap large numbers of old, heavily polluting cars and diesel trucks.
California's air agencies are eager to reclaim the power to mold and enforce new regulations targeting businesses, cars and other sources of smog. The Wilson Administration says it is in a better position than the EPA to find the least painful and economically disruptive ways.
"This (settlement) does what people are telling us they want, which is to allow California to develop its own solution," said Nichols, a Los Angeles environmentalist and former chair of the California Air Resources Board before Clinton appointed her to the high EPA post. "But it doesn't change the basic requirement" that the Los Angeles region achieve healthful air within 15 years, she added.
Top EPA officials met with Wilson aides, including the Air Resources Board's newly appointed chairman, John Dunlap, on Thursday afternoon to inform them of the development and to vow to work together on clean air plans. Dunlap was unavailable for comment.
Although the settlement does not include the plans for Ventura and Sacramento because they come under separate court orders, Nichols said the EPA will also put off implementation of those plans until 1997.
The EPA's eventual approval of the state and local smog plans, however, is by no means assured. Nichols said some portions, especially the controversial program to scrap cars and trucks, need to be strengthened with more details.
"California's (plan) is considerably more advanced than most other states, and it's safe to say it is the best of the lot," she said. "But it still doesn't meet the standards for approvability at the moment."
Nichols added: "This is not a fatal flaw. That's what this new time process is about, to make sure it can be fixed. We think we will be able to approve it."
From the onset, Browner and other top EPA officials repeatedly stressed that they were assuming control in California under duress, after losing their long legal battle in 1993. They urged the Wilson Administration to develop its own alternative, and were relieved when California was one of eight states that met a Nov. 15 deadline set by Congress for submitting clean-air plans.
The EPA's proposed plan contains several hundred measures for the three urban areas aimed at reducing emissions from cars, trucks, planes, trains, boats, ships, off-road equipment, pesticides, consumer products, paints, large industrial sources such as oil refineries, and small commercial businesses such as print shops and bakeries.
The EPA estimates that complying with the measures would cost $4 billion to $6 billion a year, although industry officials say it would be much higher.
Hundreds of business groups and community leaders, including Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, banded together in opposition, saying the Clinton Administration authored an unrealistic and overbearing proposal that will drag the state into a deeper recession. James Strock, Wilson's secretary for environmental protection, called it "a bleak, back-alley legal process for which there is no precedent, no environmental rationale, no defense, and seemingly, no end."
Even some of Clinton's top aides called it unsound. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena warned the EPA's Browner in August that the proposals "will have extreme and unacceptable levels of impact on the economy, employment and the free flow of commerce in the south coast area" and "could have an adverse effect on transportation safety," especially airlines and ships.