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Cities gain time to clean up air. But EPA says they must press to meet federal standards

At the end of this year, most major cities will miss the federal deadline for cleaning up their air. Under the Clean Air Act, regions failing to meet standards for ozone and carbon monoxide would be slapped with hefty penalties, including a ban on the construction of major new pollution sources and a cutoff in federal highway funds.

And so the push is on among lawmakers and key members of the Reagan administration to extend the deadline - or at least keep the sanction hammer from falling too hard.

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Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a policy that would give many cities and counties more time. EPA administrator Lee Thomas called the proposal ``tough, but reasonable.'' The plan would allow state and local governments up to five more years to meet air-quality standards. The only regions immediately threatened with sanctions would be those that haven't made ``reasonable efforts'' to attain the standards.

Many regions have air-pollution reduction plans that were approved by EPA in the past, but which failed to achieve their targets on schedule. Other regions still don't have approved plans. Under the new proposal, all areas not in compliance will have to develop comprehensive plans to reduce pollution 3 percent a year, over and above reductions already called for.

This past summer Mr. Thomas had indicated that the agency would wait to see if Congress moved to revise the Clean Air Act. But it is now clear that Congress won't be able to do anything before the Dec. 31 deadline.

EPA figures at least 50 regions will miss the deadline. All 26 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas were out of compliance in August, when EPA published figures for 1984 to 1986.

``The most appealing part of the EPA plan is the flexibility it provides the states,'' says Kevin Ott of the National Association of Manufacturers. ``On the down side, there's no way to establish the economic effects of the states' chosen methods of improving local air quality.''

The deadline focuses on two key air pollutants - ozone and carbon monoxide. The more controversial of the two is ozone. This colorless, odorless gas is formed through a chemical process in the atmosphere. It is the main constituent of urban smog. Unlike other types of air pollution, ozone can't be traced to a handful of major sources. This makes controlling it difficult for cities. The gases that come together to form ozone are produced by a variety of everyday processes, such as filling a gas tank or dry cleaning clothes.

``We're no longer dealing with large, single sources of pollution,'' says Craig Potter, assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation. Under these circumstances, the EPA argues that the deadline needs to be treated with flexibility. Some regions, such as Los Angeles, are decades away from meeting the EPA minimum for ozone of .12 parts per million, which the agency figures is safe for humans.

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Still, some critics argue that the EPA is letting cities and counties off the hook too easily. In addition, many complain that the federal environmental agency has no right to dabble in what has traditionally been a legislative matter. The Clean Air Act - first passed in 1970 - set 1977 as a deadline for cleaning up the nation's air. This has been extended twice by Congress, five years each time.

But even many environmentalists are hesitant to push for sanctions. They fear that such measures might prompt Congress to weaken the law. In 1982, when former EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford said she would impose sanctions, Congress passed an amendment forbidding the agency from spending any money to carry out the threat.

Indeed, lawmakers are threatening to attach a similar amendment to the next budget resolution before year's end.

The EPA proposal comes in the wake of intense congressional wrangling over the Clean Air Act. The Senate Environment Committee earlier this month approved a bill that would drastically strengthen the law. It sets out an ambitious program to control acid rain and toxic air pollution, while giving cities more time to meet the deadline. But the bill is unlikely to go very far this year. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia has blocked efforts to tighten up on emissions associated with acid rain.

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