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EPA Aims to Squeegee Golden State's Urban Air

Federal proposal to curb air pollution could serve as national model

CALIFORNIA, which already has some of the most stringent air-pollution standards on earth, may now be the subject of even more controls that would govern everything from planes to pesticides.

In a state that has minted rules regulating the emissions of leaf blowers, deodorants, perfumes, and bug sprays, residents may now see controls extended to ships, trains, and motor boats. Sacramento residents could be asked to keep cars off the road one day a week.

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These are among the ideas and items contained in a proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plan to clean up the air in three California urban areas - with important implications for other cities across the country.

Some proposed measures push pollution control into new frontiers. To the extent that they are implemented in California - the nation's premier smog-busting proving ground - they could become tomorrow's standards for other urban areas.

``They have thrown down the gauntlet,'' says Larry Berg, a former board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency overseeing pollution regulation in the Los Angeles area, of the EPA plan. ``I think it is a wake-up call to areas of the country that thought they could fudge or delay in meeting the goals of the federal Clean Air Act.''

The proposed measures, some of which will draw the ire of business interests, were unveiled this week by the EPA in response to a court order. They are designed to squeegee skies over the four-county L.A. basin, Ventura County, and the Sacramento area, where 15 million people - half the state's population - live.

It marked the first time that the EPA has directly involved itself in cleaning up California's air, the nation's dirtiest. The agency was forced to act as a result of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups when local regulators failed to comply with the 1977 Clean Air Act.

The EPA has scheduled six months of public hearings on the proposed plan. The rules will begin to take effect in February 1995 if state and local agencies don't adopt adequate plans for the three regions.

The federal plan targets virtually every source of pollution: factories, cars, trucks, bakeries, dirt bikes, bulldozers, lawn mowers, house paints, chemical plants, livestock waste, jet skis, etc.

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Most of these are regulated or due to be by state and local agencies. In a few cases, the EPA plan goes further. It would, for example, adopt lower tailpipe emissions for buses and some trucks than California regulations.

The biggest difference, though, is in areas that would be regulated for the first time - notably, planes, trains, and ships. These are sources state and local regulators have wanted to control but didn't have jurisdiction over. They can create up to 30 percent of smog-producing nitrogen oxides in local areas. ``This is good extra support,'' says Bill Sessa of the state Air Resources Board.

Cleaning up these exhausts won't be done without controversy. Some airline groups have expressed concern the new rules might force them to cut down on the number of flights; shippers are expected to beef, too.

Under the plan, each commercial airline would be allocated a pollution limit. To meet those caps, the carrier could use less-polluting baggage-hauling trolleys or change other ground operations. Eventually, though, as the pollution limits were lowered each year, the changes would probably have to come from the aircraft themselves. For shippers, a fee would be assessed on each commercial vessel coming into the harbor based on the amount of pollutants it emitted.

``There will be resistance from airlines and shipping interests,'' says David Howekamp, director of the air and toxic division of the EPA's western regional office.

The proposed strictures could have been worse. EPA regulators could have called for gas rationing. They did, however, suggest instituting a no-driving day in Sacramento. But few expect that to come about.

Instead, the area is likely to have its deadline for meeting federal ozone standards extended from 1999 to 2005, which would probably preclude the need to restrict driving.

The EPA plan might buttress the political standing of local smog agencies. Some have been under attack for being too zealous in regulating pollution in recessionary times. ``I have a feeling it is going to change the politics of the debate a bit,'' Mr. Berg says.

Others hope it will help new industries that produce clean-air technologies take root. ``California is the Super Bowl of smog,'' says Tom Soto, president of Coalition for Clean Air, one group that filed the lawsuit against the EPA. ``If we can find the solutions, we can market them to other parts of the country.''

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