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Stakes High as Agencies Battle Anew Over Smog

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

After a long truce, the smog wars are back.

National and regional officials have resumed feuding over a far-reaching clean air plan that maps the path and pace of pollution control in the Los Angeles Basin for the next dozen years.

At stake is how quickly the region’s air will become safe to breathe and how heavy a price Southern California businesses and consumers will pay.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which already has helped the region achieve its clearest skies in half a century, has mounted a slower, more business-friendly approach toward fighting smog. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped up warnings that the region’s strategy is unacceptable because it would leave the air too dirty for too long.

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If the federal agency prevails, local businesses might have to switch to pollution-free technologies more rapidly, or the AQMD may be forced to find novel ways to get Southern Californians to drive less.

EPA officials want more tons of pollution removed from the Southland’s air, and they want it done at a quicker pace, just as the AQMD and California Air Resources Board promised in 1994 in an earlier version of their smog plan.

“The recession took the wind out of everyone’s sails,” said David Howekamp, the EPA’s regional chief of air programs in San Francisco. “But last time I looked, the recession is over and California’s economy is robust. It’s time to get moving again.”

Added EPA senior policy advisor Nancy Sutley: “The AQMD can’t lose sight that L.A. still has the worst air in the country by far. There’s a sense [at the AQMD] of ‘Let’s declare victory and move on.’ They’ve been coasting.”

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AQMD executives resent the federal government’s criticism, saying their new approach is ambitious yet more realistic.

“We’re not asleep. We’re wide awake and we’re moving aggressively toward clean air,” said AQMD Acting Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein. “Our rules are on the cutting edge and beyond what the EPA has specified anywhere in the country.”

In its current smog plan, AQMD officials, pressured by industry and legislators, delayed or eased numerous pollution limits outlined four years ago. Instead, they are relying heavily on the belief that improved smog-fighting technologies will emerge after 2004.

Wallerstein said the plan “represents the best available science, all feasible controls” and “included a public consultation second to none.”

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If the AQMD is forced to return to its earlier plan, 31 proposed measures could be revived. Consumers could be forced to make a quicker transition to pollution-free household paints and water heaters. Manufacturers would have to switch more rapidly to low-emission solvents and adhesives. And shopping malls, airports, sports arenas and concert halls would have to encourage drivers to use ride-share programs.

Federal Vs. Local Government

EPA officials say the AQMD does not have to stick to those measures--but it must find substitutes that would remove equal amounts of pollution, amounting to several hundred tons every day. The AQMD would have to seek novel ways to reduce Southern Californians’ commutes or regulate other industries and products, perhaps tackling politically sensitive issues such as transportation control and land-use planning, said EPA air specialist David Jesson.

EPA officials “have always been distressed about the poverty” of steps in California’s smog plans addressing growth and transportation, Jesson said.

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The feud, simmering for months, ignited in January when the EPA sided with environmentalists against the AQMD in a major lawsuit. The EPA told a federal judge that it has no intention of accepting the AQMD’s current smog plan, calling it “unapprovable.”

Shocked and outraged, AQMD leaders demanded a retraction. The EPA, however, has refused to back off.

In a flurry of tense letters and meetings, both sides have kept asserting that they are heading down the best path toward clean air.

“This is part of a broader fight over who controls air regulations in California. There’s basically a war going on among the federal, state and local agencies,” said Gail Ruderman Feuer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has sued the AQMD and state air board seeking stronger smog rules.

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“The sad part,” Feuer said, “is ultimately the public is the loser because the agencies spend tons of resources fighting each other rather than making progress in reducing the pollution the public breathes.”

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the region must achieve health standards by 2010. More than 60% of the smog-forming emissions spewed--about 1,500 tons per day--must be eliminated within 12 years.

If the EPA, which has oversight over state air pollution programs, officially rejects California’s plan, the federal agency under law is supposed to step in with its own.

But no one involved wants the confrontation to escalate that far, since just four years ago, that’s exactly what happened, with explosive results.

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In 1994, the EPA, facing a court order, took over smog control in California and unveiled an unpopular and harsh strategy because the AQMD and state had failed to develop a plan of their own.

Horrified by the federal intrusion, Gov. Pete Wilson and California regulators accused the Clinton administration of dismantling California’s economy. Eager to resume control, the AQMD and state air board crafted their own 15-year smog plan.

In 1996, the EPA approved that plan, hailing it as an ambitious blueprint for blue skies. California set a record by becoming the only state to launch a smog effort rigorous enough to meet the demands of the Clean Air Act.

By then, however, AQMD leaders, under intense pressure from state legislators, were questioning the practicality and necessity of such an aggressive strategy. Fifty days after celebrating the EPA’s approval, the AQMD scaled back its plan so that it would allow several hundred extra tons of pollution to remain in the air each day. Soon afterward, the state air board approved it.

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Thirty-one proposed measures were thrown out, and limits for many polluting businesses and products are more conservative than the AQMD envisioned a few years ago.

After the new plan was unveiled, nine of the AQMD’s scientific advisors resigned en masse to protest the down-scaled efforts. Environmentalists lambasted the plan as too lax to protect public health, and they filed suit seeking to force implementation of the stronger 1994 measures.

“We were surprised by the magnitude of the changes,” Howekamp of the EPA said. “We thought, and still do, that [California’s] 1994 plan was a big success story.”

Wallerstein, the revamped plan’s main architect, defends it, saying he and his staff poured every workable idea into it. More than 60 measures aimed at industries, vehicles and consumer products are scheduled to be adopted by 2002.

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Frustrated, Wallerstein has sent his own challenge to the EPA: If you think we neglected some feasible ways to combat smog, just name them.

“If we’re turning over every rock and we miss something, then we hope they will point out specifically what we missed. We can’t read their minds,” Wallerstein said.

“We’ve said all along that if there is a justifiable reason, we will make changes to the plan in rapid fashion. But we don’t believe that they have identified to us any compelling reason why the plan should be disapproved.”

As the debate drags on, California industries complain that they face great uncertainty--will they be forced to comply with the tougher pollution limits of the 1994 plan or the newer, easier ones?

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AQMD officials say they discarded and weakened measures because their research shows that many cleaner technologies are not yet ready or cost too much.

“In some cases, the technology simply didn’t exist,” Wallerstein said. “There’s also a couple measures where the cost-effectiveness is well beyond what our board considered acceptable.”

Debate Over Pollution-Free Paints

For example, the AQMD planned to set standards for household paints that cut over 60 tons of daily emissions. But some manufacturers questioned the durability of many pollution-free paints, so the board enacted standards that eliminate only 10 daily tons beginning in 2008.

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Jesson of the EPA said the AQMD should return to a more aggressive stance, since history has proved that if California sets stringent standards, manufacturers perfect new products--dating back 30 years to catalytic converters in cars.

“The gravity of the public health problem in the South Coast merits continued pressure on industry,” Jesson said.

Felicia Marcus, the EPA’s regional administrator, said she hopes to avoid formally rejecting the plan and would rather strike a compromise.

“In our heart of hearts, we cannot say yes to this plan,” Marcus said. “Our best judgment is that it’s not good enough. Now’s the time for us to sit down and try to figure out how to make it better.”

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