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Reagan's regulatory cleanup: Will it do the same for the air?

If the Reagan administration its way, big changes are in store for federal air pollution laws -- with many provisions of the Clean Air Act relaxed or repealed, much authority turned back to state governments, many requirements softened in ways to make automakers and utility officials smile.

Supporters of antipollution regulations -- including key Republicans on Capitol Hill -- are so concerned about what the White House is considering that Congress may not complete the required rewriting of the Clean Air Act this year. Recent polls showing that most Americans do not want the law relaxed are prompting lawmakers to resist the administration efforts and move at a more deliberative pace.

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Writing to the chairman of the House subcommittee tha oversees environmental laws, Vice-President George Bush in April said the administration would seek "midcourse corrections" in the Clean Air Act.

More recently, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California obtained a draft copy of administration proposals to amend the Clean Air Act. Far from "midcourse correction," the thrust from the White House represents a "radical weakening," charges Mr. Waxman, who chairs this energy subcommitee.

The 106-page White House list and analysis of Clean Air Act amendments includes the following proposals:

* Push back the deadline for states to meet air quality standards from 1982 to 1987 and lengthen the time for new standards beyond that from three years to five years. This proposal also makes it easier for states to get a deadline extension and repeals the requirement that state conduct auto emission inspection and maintenance programs in those areas unable to meet the 1982 ozone and carbon monoxide standard.

* Give the Environmental Protection Agency much greater discretion in forcing states and industries to comply with provisions of the Clean Air Act. Limits also would be placed on the amount the EPA could fine an offending polluter. In certain instances, the EPA and the US Department of Transportation no longer would be able to withhold federal grants to force compliance.

* New industrial facilities or modifications to existing facilities would no longer be required to include the "best available control technology" in all instances. This proposal would relax the requirement that companies building additional facilities in "nonattainment" areas (those that do not meet clean air standards) reduce pollution by an equal amount in existing plants.

* "Secondary standards" designed to protect agricultural and rural areas would be eliminated. Protection of those especially clean areas that already exceed federal standards also would be repealed except for national parks and wilderness areas.

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* The carbon monoxide emission standard for automobiles would be doubled from 3.4 grams per mile to 7.0 grams. The oxides of nitrogen standard would be relaxed from 1.0 grams per mile to 1.5 grams. The EPA would be able to establish separate, less stringent emission standards for autos sold at higher elevations.

These last two administration proposals are exactly what auto industry officials asked Congress for in Senate testimony this week.

"We believe we have exceeded the point of diminishing returns," said Chrysler Corporation vice-president J. D. Withrow. "The industry took out the first 58 grams of pollution for only $25 in new car costs. But it cost more than $200 to take out the last five grams."

Automakers also want pollution standards established for "fleet averages" rather than individual cars. When added together, said California Air Resources Board executive director Thomas Austin, industry proposals would mean a doubling of auto pollution.

At this point, this extensive overhaul proposal seems politically unlikely.

Sen. Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and an author of the Clean Air Act, says "fine tuning" rather than a massive rewrite of one of the nation's most significant environmental laws is called for. He has expressed concern over what the administration apparently intends to propose, as have many other lawmakers.

"The American people have come to expect a strong national commitment to clean air and have shown a willingness to pay for it," he says.

According to a recent Harris poll, 86 percent of those polled want the Clean Air Act t o remain as strong as it is, if not stronger.

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