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Assault on State’s Air Rules

Last summer was the smoggiest in the Los Angeles Basin in six years. Look for even more days of watery eyes and wheezy chests if the federal government succeeds in hobbling local air quality officials.

President Bush and his congressional allies seem bent on blocking progress made by California in recent years. Their challenges, clothed in erudite language about state versus federal powers, are really outright concessions to car and engine makers and oil refiners. When Southern California cities or their private contractors replace worn-out diesel-engine buses, trash trucks and street sweepers, they are required to do so with cleaner-fuel vehicles. Nearly 60% of local transit buses -- more than 3,000 of them -- now run on natural gas or other clean fuels, along with hundreds of airport shuttles, school buses and dump trucks.

The White House is backing a lawsuit that would invalidate these local fleet rules adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District over the last three years. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the suit, brought by diesel engine makers, arguing that only the federal Environmental Protection Agency can set such fleet rules. However, Congress specifically allowed California to impose more rigorous pollution standards.

The administration is also pushing legislation that would weaken limits on ozone, the primary ingredient of smog. In 1997, the EPA toughened nationwide ozone limits. Those rules work, in part, by forcing cooperation between agencies accustomed to working independently to cut emissions. For example, in fast-growing Charlotte, N.C., local highway planners, meeting with air quality officials, have produced a plan that allows for new road construction while keeping a lid on smog. The region is now investing in light-rail transit to get commuters out of their cars and encouraging developers to mix new commercial projects with residential units.

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With 70% of smog-forming emissions coming from cars and trucks, the joint planning is just common sense. Yet the president’s transportation funding bill, now before Congress, would do away with it.

Finally, only last-ditch lobbying by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others kept Congress from killing new state rules intended to clamp down on smoke-spewing small gasoline engines that power lawn mowers, leaf blowers and chain saws. Engine makers and their political allies almost succeeded on their shaky argument that the requirement, which takes effect in 2007, would cost jobs.

The gray-brown haze that so quickly dulled the San Gabriel Mountains’ snow-capped sparkle after last week’s rains is a good measure of how smoggy the Southland remains. Californians want more progress, not less.


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