Trying to salvage its seriously flawed strategy for combatting a key ingredient of smog, the Southland's air quality agency on Thursday unveiled a revised proposal that would mandate reductions at a much quicker pace. But in a major concession to local businesses, the plan ultimately would eliminate less pollution than originally envisioned.
When originally proposed last spring, the expansion of a ground-breaking pollution program called RECLAIM was touted as the region's most aggressive smog-fighting effort of the past two decades. But in July the staff of the South Coast Air Quality Management District discovered that its emission limits were so lax that manufacturing industries would be allowed to actually spew more pollution into the air for the next 10 years than they emit today.
On Thursday, AQMD executives revealed an overhaul that includes a surprising victory for the region's manufacturing industries: Instead of requiring cuts in the manufacturers' emissions of volatile organic compounds, or hydrocarbons, each year through 2010, the limits would decline only through 2005. The original plan would have slashed the companies' emissions in half by 2010, but the new version would cut them by one-third--a difference of five tons of the pollutant per day in 2010.
Although Southland skies would not end up as clean as under the earlier proposal, the trade-off is expected to result in more immediate improvements in air quality.
AQMD Executive Officer James Lents said Thursday that rather than dwell on highly controversial long-term cuts in pollution, his staff has decided to focus on an accelerated pace. Under the new version, the companies' total pollution would have to dip beneath today's levels beginning in 1999 and decline for six more years before leveling off.
Nearly 1,000 businesses in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, including aerospace firms, print shops, furniture makers, publishers and other large and small manufacturers, would be regulated under the proposed expansion of RECLAIM.
The proposal signals a major turn away from the air agency's old philosophy--setting stringent limits that force companies to invent low-polluting compounds and technologies that are not yet envisioned today. The region's business leaders have fought hard to persuade the staff to abandon that approach, saying mandates should not be based on futuristic, questionable predictions that could stall the manufacturing sector's slow climb out of recession.
By cutting five years and five tons off its original plan, the ending targets are now based entirely on compounds and technologies that already exist or soon will be available to replace the high VOC solvents, inks, paints, primers and other compounds widely used by industries.
"In the short term, our rules are not going to be as technology-forcing as they have been in the past," Lents said Thursday. "There is concern if we push too far with technology it has a detrimental effect on business, and what you're seeing today is some concessions."
Los Angeles attorney Robert Wyman, who represents Northrop Grumman, Hughes Aircraft and other large manufacturers playing a major role in molding the proposal, called it "good news."
"We like this approach much better," he said, saying the earlier proposed pollution limits were "plucked out of thin air" instead of being based on achievable technologies.
But environmentalists say improvements in air quality would not come soon enough nor cut deep enough to clean up the nation's foulest air.
"It's a shame they are caving in to industry's demands," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It is way out of left field to end the program early. The reality is we need to do something to clean up our air, and the program they are proposing does too little in the beginning and ends too quickly."
The air agency's top executive called the new approach a good trade-off that is more pragmatic in a time of economic uncertainty for Southern California. Lents said it is more critical to ensure quicker improvements up front than to argue with industries about the bottom line 15 years away.
"We felt this was close enough to the numbers we need for attainment [of health standards] that it's not worth fighting about with businesses," Lents said. "We wanted to get this program started. Why fight about those last five years?"
As an added precaution, Lents said, the AQMD would require a re-evaluation in 2003 to see whether technology has progressed and the limits can be extended.
RECLAIM expansion is considered pivotal to cleaning up the Southland's dirty air because it is the AQMD's last major push to tackle the region's industrial sources of smog as it strives to meet a 2010 federal deadline for clean air. Simultaneously, the state Air Resources Board is devising rules to clean up emissions from cars and other motor vehicles, which are by far the largest sources of smog-causing pollution.
The intent of the AQMD proposal is to scale back manufacturers' reliance on VOCs, petroleum-based materials found in an array of commonly used industrial chemicals. VOCs react in sunlight with nitrogen oxides to form ozone, the Los Angeles region's predominant air pollutant.
In RECLAIM, each company must cut its emissions annually to comply with its limit or buy credits sold by other companies in a "smog exchange" similar to other valuable commodities, from gold to pork bellies. For example, an aerospace firm that stopped using VOC-based materials could sell its extra pollution credits to a furniture factory that had trouble meeting its limit.
The proposed measure is scheduled to come before the AQMD's governing board for an initial review in January, with a vote expected a few months later.
Without the endorsement of industry leaders, the program is unlikely to win the approval of the board's new conservative, pro-business majority. Environmentalists increasingly have lost battles.
In 1997, when the program would begin, the companies collectively will be allowed to emit 38 tons of VOCs daily, compared with 31 tons emitted in 1993 and 1994. Under the old version, the starting allocations had been much higher, at 48 tons.
Environmentalists say the new limits remain too high. AQMD officials contend they must allow emissions to increase through 1999 to avoid freezing the businesses at recent low, recessionary rates of producing goods.
Lents said the change in strategy is largely due to a new technology review his staff unveiled Thursday indicating that cleaner solvents and other compounds are ready for many uses, from printing to aerospace. Also contributing, he said, was a new belief by the AQMD that emissions won't have to be reduced as much by 2010 as originally thought to meet the federal ozone health standard.
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New Smog Strategy
The AQMD has overhauled a proposed anti-smog measure, expected to go into effect in 1997, that targets volatile organic compounds emitted by nearly 1,000 Southland businesses. Compared with the previous plan, emissions would be required to decline more rapidly but reductions would not last as long or cut as deep.
Old limit and goal (1997): 48
Old limit and goal (20010): 16
New limit and goal (1997): 38
New limit and goal (20005): 21
Projected 3% growth (1994): 31
Projected 3% growth (20010): If no plan (up 3% a year)
Source: Air Quality Management District