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Tougher Air Standards Pose Quandary for White House

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing intense political and economic pressures, the Clinton administration is feverishly seeking a way to implement the stringent air standards that it proposed six months ago while softening the impact of their implementation.

With environmental officials refusing to give in to pressure from congressional Republicans, manufacturers and others to relax the proposed standards, administration aides are predicting that efforts to resolve the conflict will focus on attempts to make cleaning up the air less costly. But no specific plans have been drawn up, and one White House aide held out the strong possibility that, ultimately, the proposed standards would be relaxed.

The administration wants to avoid a drawn-out congressional battle over the standards, which were developed after years of study and hundreds of scientific reports.

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The Environmental Protection Agency is required by law to examine new scientific studies on the impact of smog and soot on human health and, using that data, to determine the impact on respiratory and other diseases. Its proposed revisions to air standards are a result of that process.

Carol M. Browner, the agency’s administrator, has made it clear that she sees no choice but to give final approval to the standards she proposed in November. But others in the administration, particularly those who deal with economic questions, are pressuring her to relax the plan, leaving the outcome still far from certain.

“We’re still talking about where the standards should be,” one senior administration official said. While Browner “has some flexibility, we have to do what is credible to protect public health. As time goes on, more of the discussion will focus on implementation,” the official said.

The standards would define concentrations of particles and ozone deemed not damaging to health. Then, each city or state would have until 2002 to craft its own strategy and until 2012 to achieve the new limits. Areas that fail to comply would face the threat of severe sanctions, including a freeze on federal highway funds.

The EPA proposal would lower the standard for ozone, or smog, to 0.08 parts per million when averaged over eight hours. The Los Angeles Basin and many other regions still do not meet the current standard, 0.12 parts per million averaged in a single hour.

The plan would set standards governing particulate matter, or soot, no larger than 2.5 microns--far below the current threshold of 10 microns. Soot particles are dust-like matter given off by the burning of coal and wood, among other fuels. Particles 28 times smaller than the width of a human hair can lodge in the lungs and reduce their capacity, a problem of often extreme concern for people with respiratory systems already weakened by disease.

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The EPA had estimated that the tighter standards would prevent 20,000 premature deaths a year from respiratory and cardiac disease--a figure that it later revised to 15,000--as well as 250,000 asthma attacks and 60,000 cases of chronic bronchitis a year.

The agency also said costs for complying with the two stricter standards would reach $6.6 billion to $8.5 billion in 2007, while the benefits, largely in terms of reduced medical bills, would reach $58 billion to $120 billion that year. Opponents said the science regarding the health benefits of stricter standards is incomplete and does not warrant such expense. And while health experts said that scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that fine particles are linked to illnesses and death, they do not know which types are the most dangerous or exactly what they do to the human body.

Industry leaders said that waiting for such details could avoid a massive effort that might prove to be inconsequential in protecting health.

Browner’s adherence to the standards she drafted late last year is widely supported within her agency and by environmentalists. But she has come up against adamant opposition from the National Assn. of Manufacturers, small- business organizations and local and county governments. All are concerned that complying with the standards would cost too much--either in expensive new equipment intended to reduce pollution emissions or in closed factories, lost jobs and eroded tax bases.

“There aren’t many allies, except for the American Lung Assn. and Henry Waxman,” said a senior environmental official, exaggerating only slightly the EPA’s seemingly isolated position in which relatively few in Congress, beyond Rep. Waxman, the Los Angeles Democrat, have outspokenly defended Browner’s position.

And within the administration, he pointed out, Sally Katzen, a senior budget official who oversees the formation of regulations, “is trying to soften this somehow.” Documents assembled in such diverse federal agencies as the Departments of Agriculture and Treasury have also reflected objections.

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Throughout the debate, EPA officials have pointed out that the standards are based only on scientific considerations and that the only place for economic considerations is in the preparation of regulations.

Officials said the debate has not yet reached President Clinton. However, it has deeply involved his top economic advisors.

The debate puts Vice President Al Gore in a particularly difficult position, forcing him to choose between the goals for toughened standards, favored by the constituency in the environmental community that he has long courted, and the Rust Belt workers in the Midwest, where people fear that stricter standards would exact a high economic price.

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