Clean-Air Order Undercut

Some of the most microscopic particles in the air are of the greatest concern to health because they easily find their way to the deep recesses of our lungs. Such pollutants, which include diesel exhaust and wildfire ash, can cramp lung function and cause coughs and shortness of breath. They aggravate asthma and turn bronchitis into a chronic condition. They’re behind thousands of hospitalizations and premature deaths each year and have been linked to increased lung cancer risk. Because the risks only recently became clear, though, fine particulates have taken a back seat to ozone when it comes to air regulations.

That’s not likely to change under a new directive from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordering 243 counties nationwide to reduce unhealthful levels of fine particulate pollution by 2010. As on-target as EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt’s demand sounds, it is seriously undercut by his own efforts and those of his boss, President Bush, to erode even existing protections.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 14, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 14, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 12 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Clean-air rules -- A July 1 editorial erroneously said nonroad diesel engines, such as those used for construction equipment, are unregulated. There are regulations for such engines, with much tougher ones to take effect in coming years.

That’s especially true of the administration’s decision to file a friend-of-the-court brief against an important anti-pollution initiative in Southern California, where some of the worst particulate pollution occurs. The U.S. Supreme Court in April struck down a regional air quality rule that would have required fleet owners to buy cleaner engines when they replaced their dirty diesel vehicles. The White House could and should have left engine makers to mount their own attack, giving the state a better chance of winning.

Bush also rejected the idea of environmental reviews before allowing dirtier Mexican diesel trucks to drive U.S. roads. That decision, backed by the high court in June, would disproportionately pollute Southern California. The administration extols its “Clear Skies” initiative, stalled in Congress, as a pollution cutter even though it would leave more soot and smog in the air than the Clean Air Act, which it would replace. Under Bush, the EPA has made it easier for coal plants -- the major source of fine particulates in the East -- to avoid installing state-of-the-art pollution equipment when they renovate.


The EPA put forth a valuable air regulation in May, when it announced tough pollution standards for construction vehicles and other non-road diesel engines. Because those engines are now unregulated, the rules will make a real difference in the long term. But diesels last decades, and it will take about 25 years to replace most of them.

California and many other states are way ahead of the feds in trying to scrub the air of these particles, thousands of which could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. The regional Air Quality Management District is forging ahead with a more limited fleet- replacement rule, covering only public agencies and perhaps private companies that want public contracts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced an innovative way to keep funding incentive payments that nudge diesel owners to replace their engines with cleaner technology. New state legislation seeks to keep foreign trucks out of California unless they meet federal pollution standards.

California doesn’t need to be forced by the Bush administration to clean up the air. What it needs is for the administration to stop erecting roadblocks.