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The Logical Next Step

The clouds of dust that swirl over dirt roads, farm fields and construction sites are a major source of local air pollution. Dust particulates--microscopic pieces of pollution--contribute heavily to smog and can cause serious respiratory problems. But the impact of these visible clouds pales in comparison with the political dust storms that have greeted costly local and federal initiatives to control them.

Dust accounts for about a third of the particulates in the Los Angeles Basin, and reducing it is considered one of the cheapest and most effective ways to improve air quality. Earlier this month the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District unanimously passed two measures designed to eliminate as much as 86 tons of particles per day from Southern California skies.

The new regulations will require localities to pave much of the 4,600 miles of dirt roads in the Los Angeles Basin and to take more aggressive steps to suppress road dust, such as using sweepers equipped with vacuums or fine-particle filters. Governments will also be required to take stronger measures to control dust at construction sites, mines, farms and landfills.

The board’s action comes in response to mandatory federal limits on airborne dust and particulates. When fully implemented, by 2006, the new rules should eliminate about 25% of the dust that hangs in a gritty, gray haze over the region each day, exacerbating respiratory and cardiac problems.

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The AQMD estimates the program will cost $10.6 million yearly. The region’s 150 cities and counties will bear the brunt of that cost, and their officials worry about how to find the money. But they must face facts. These rules are just the beginning of a new phase in the long struggle for cleaner air. Federal rules proposed in November would impose limits on what are called fine particulates, particles of pollution smaller than those generally found in dust clouds.

The new Environmental Protection Agency rules will affect 130 million Americans in several regions, including Southern California. Compliance will require more advanced emissions technologies or, perhaps, the phaseout of diesel fuel. The EPA may adopt final standards this summer.

The process of final adoption and implementation over the next 15 to 20 years will be a test of our commitment to cleaner air. Some Congress members and governors already have warned that they will not only try to block the rules but will attempt to revise the Clean Air Act, which gives the EPA authority to set air pollution standards.

We have taken the easy steps to cut smog, and they have paid off. Our air is cleaner. The next steps promise to be much harder, but each one will increase the safeguards for our health.

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