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Anti-Smog Plan Appears Likely to Be Shelved

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Facing newly stiffened opposition from industry, Southern California’s air quality board is likely to abandon efforts today to expand its pollution market for cleaning up industrial sources of smog.

Extending the RECLAIM program to include 1,000 more firms was supposed to be the last major push to target manufacturers that rely on highly polluting petroleum-based solvents. But with growing resistance, and a pro-business shift in Sacramento and on the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, senior agency staff said they see no way to salvage the proposal.

The plan, which has been under development for three years, is on the verge of being shelved largely because without the support of the region’s major manufacturers, it has virtually no chance of being adopted by the AQMD board. The staff will ask the board for direction at a meeting today.

“Right now we have a proposal that doesn’t have any support from anyone--even environmentalists don’t support it--and there has to be some support from some quarter for this thing to be adopted,” said AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly. “We’ve worked hard, we’ve done our best, but this is where we are, and it’s time for the board to decide what we should do.”

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RECLAIM was supposed to be a widely acclaimed new frontier in Southern California smog control. It is designed to improve the nation’s most unhealthful air by setting annual pollution limits for businesses, and creating an open market for smog credits similar to a stock exchange.

AQMD board Chairman Jon Mikels told The Times on Thursday that he will ask his fellow board members to shelve the RECLAIM plan, at least temporarily, and instead take time to consider a broader approach. The AQMD has been studying ways to broaden the smog market by allowing many more polluters, such as trucking and shipping companies and other mobile sources of pollution, to trade credits.

“Let’s not call it a death knell, but call it a little slow-down here to see how it fits in overall,” Mikels said. “As it is constituted, it seems to be getting little support, so it may not be fruitful to pursue it with as much vigor.”

Industry leaders, who strongly endorsed the approach originally, now reject the agency’s proposed pollution limits, saying they are too stringent. With new members of the AQMD board more friendly to business, industry leaders say they prefer to take their chances that smog rules will be eased.

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Industry is also gambling that new Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, a critic of smog rules, will influence the board to become more restrained in adopting new smog controls.

“The program is dead, I hear,” said Gerald Bonetto of the Printing Industries of California, a business group involved with the proposal. “There is no one who can live with it or can support it.”

The biggest blow came in a surprise move Tuesday when a coalition of 14 top corporations involved in drafting RECLAIM--including Hughes Electronics, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, TRW Inc., Times Mirror and the Walt Disney Co.--changed its stance and rejected it as totally unworkable. “While we remain completely supportive of market-based programs, this particular approach should not be pursued further,” said Robert Wyman, the coalition’s attorney and one of the architects of RECLAIM.

“The differences are not possible to reconcile in the weeks ahead,” he said. “The industry is not willing to bet the region’s economic future on whether or not [new low-polluting] technologies will develop.”

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One AQMD board member said he wonders if industry’s hard stance is a negotiating ploy.

“Now’s the time to strike if you’re industry,” said the board member, who asked to remain unidentified. “The agency can’t afford to have a high-profile conflict right now with the new political climate in California. . . .

“But I’ll have to be persuaded that it’s a good idea to scrap it,” he said. “I have a real tough time abandoning the market approach.”

Environmentalists also rejected the strategy, but for opposite reasons. They say the AQMD staff has bent over backward to appease industry with a program too lax in cleaning the air. They worry, however, that the board’s alternatives are likely to be less aggressive.

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“From our perspective, [abandoning the proposal] is both good news and bad news,” said Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“As proposed, this program has so little benefit it’s hard to see why it’s worth it. But the bad news is the air district, if it drops the program, must come up with alternatives quickly. This is just another example of AQMD not implementing emission reductions.”

About 300 companies in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties already regulated under a first phase of the RECLAIM smog market will be unaffected.

The plan to add more than 1,000 businesses was considered pivotal to smog cleanup, but it has been riddled with problems and delays. It was overhauled in October after AQMD officials were embarrassed to discover that it would have allowed smog to worsen over the next 10 years.

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In an effort to win industry’s endorsement, the air agency has already granted major concessions. Annual cuts in pollution would be mandated through 2005 instead of 2010 as envisioned, and emissions would be cut by about one-third instead of half.

The expansion was supposed to replace 15 proposed regulations cutting use of volatile organic compounds in paints, industrial-strength cleaners and other chemicals widely used by aerospace plants, print shops, furniture makers, auto body shops and others.

Without the RECLAIM proposal, the board under its clean-air plan must adopt the 15 rules. But since the board has opposed new regulations, the switch is likely to bring delays.

“There’s obviously going to be a gap [in smog control] and it may buy time,” Bonetto said. “But we are willing to say we’ll take our chances.”

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Pringle, who told The Times that he wants to eliminate the AQMD, can fill one seat on the 12-member board.

“If I were an industry and looking at the situation, particularly now that Curt Pringle is speaker of the Assembly, I would not bet on this board adopting many . . . regulations in the foreseeable future,” said one AQMD official. “So they’re better off without RECLAIM.”

Wyman, however, said it is not a delaying ploy to capitalize on anti-regulation fervor. “It is definitely not politics,” he said.


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