In a discouraging blow to smog cleanup across the Los Angeles region, air quality officials said Wednesday that they have vastly underestimated smog-forming emissions from a variety of sources and fear they will not be able to eliminate them in time to avoid penalties under the Clean Air Act.
California air quality officials have long offered assurances that they are on track to achieve healthful air by the close of the decade, as mandated by Congress. Air pollution has indeed been in retreat. Yet it appears that progress against ozone and haze, the two most abundant pollutants, is not as far along as once thought and will become more difficult.
For the first time since the region's clean air program was revamped in the late 1980s, air quality officials are signaling that it could take longer than 2010 to reduce ozone to levels required by federal law. While pledging to redouble their efforts to cut emissions, they acknowledge they do not have all the strategies or technologies to succeed. They have, however, succeeded in cleaning up other pollutants, including carbon monoxide.
Failure to meet mandatory targets for ozone and haze could have serious repercussions. It would mean that half of California's population would suffer longer than expected from the nation's dirtiest air. The pollutants common to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are known to cause headaches, asthma, heart attacks and cancer.
Businesses from aerospace plants to auto makers to cosmetic producers could bear the brunt of a host of new rules as regulators play catch-up in the next few years. California could potentially face restrictions on growth and highway construction. Consumers could pay a price for cleaner cars, reformulated household products and other goods.
Reaction to the findings, which are contained in preliminary drafts of the 2003 air quality management plan released Tuesday, stunned veteran smog fighters. The plan, which is updated every few years to reflect the latest research, is the blueprint that guides clean air efforts across the region.
"It's grim. It's disheartening," said Jack Broadbent, director of air programs in California for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I'm not ready to give up, but we need to move as aggressively as possible. I have concern and alarm."
"I am shocked. I knew they were falling behind, but not by this much," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is the single largest shortfall we've seen in an air plan in 20 years, yet it has to be solved in just seven years. It's not feasible."
Signs that California has been backsliding in the fight against smog have been apparent for several years. While air pollution is generally lower statewide, the progress has failed to keep pace with growth and development from San Francisco to Bakersfield to Palm Springs. Gains in ozone reduction across the region appear to have leveled off during the last few years after a decade of dramatic decline.
Air quality officials now acknowledge that they have seriously underestimated emissions from cars and trucks. New computer models show that vehicles produce about 30% more smog-forming emissions than once believed. The new modeling accounted for leaks in fuel lines, inefficient old cars, stop-and-go driving and the longer distances people drive these days.
At the same time, consumer products, including deodorant, hairspray and household cleaners, were found to produce more emissions than previously realized, said Lynn Terry, deputy executive officer of the state Air Resources Board. "Obviously, we have a lot to learn about the specifics of the motor vehicle fleet," Terry said.
As a result of those miscalculations, air quality officials are confronting an emissions reduction shortfall of about 145 tons of hydrocarbons and 90 tons of nitrogen oxides per day. Air quality officials concede they cannot identify enough strategies to eliminate so many emissions.
"The state and federal government have fallen behind in their efforts. There is a very deep hole they have to dig out of," said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "We still have a chance to make the  deadlines, but the EPA and [Air Resources Board] need to break into a full sprint. It's going to be difficult, a daunting task over the next several years."
Yet, the current political landscape seems like stony ground to grow a revitalized clean air program.
In Washington, the Bush administration has overturned stringent controls for polluting businesses and decided against aggressive cleanup of big ships, a major pollution source in Southern California. Congress has rejected legislation that would have improved fuel efficiency standards for autos.
In Sacramento, Gov. Gray Davis, struggling to restore California's anemic economy, declared that jobs will be his top priority and that his administration would oppose all regulations that unfairly affect small businesses.
Los Angeles-area clean air plans have a long and litigious history. Environmentalists have successfully sued to strengthen three such plans since 1989.
The 2003 clean air plan will be released in draft form at the end of the month, beginning a long process of public hearings before it heads to the EPA.