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Smog May Force Southwest To Apply Brakes to Growth


Talk about urban sprawl. The city of Phoenix grows an acre an hour, as newcomers arrive in search of high-tech jobs, a casual lifestyle, and pristine desert air.

But for every home that sprouts amid the cactus and sagebrush, this city also gains another car pumping carbon monoxide and other pollutants into the air. The result: a brown cloud that smells faintly like the Bronx.

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Across the Southwest, the big-city byproducts of rapid growth are forcing officials from Albuquerque to Las Vegas to take action. Some leaders worry their cities could lose federal funding for highways if they continue to fail air-quality tests. In some cases, the same mayors who had promoted their towns as "friendly to business" are now contemplating policies that would restrict further growth.

Phoenix is the latest example. This spring, the US Environmental Protection Agency downgraded Phoenix's carbon-monoxide and particulate rating from "moderate" to "serious." City officials are expecting Phoenix to be downgraded for ozone pollution as well in the summer months.

To address the problem, Arizona Gov. Fife Symington (R) last month declared an air pollution emergency for Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. The governor's order applies to state workers only, requiring them to cut down on drive-alone trips and avoid morning and afternoon rush hours. State leaders say the declaration is intended to show good faith and avoid penalties under the federal Clean Air Act.

A similar county program requires Maricopa businesses with 50 employees or more to begin a trip-reduction program for employees. But while the program, which started in 1988, aimed to reduce the number of single-occupant cars by 40 percent, the reduction thus far has been closer to 25 percent.

If the volunteer approach continues to lag, officials may have to consider stronger action. Roger Ferland, chairman of a state task force to reduce ozone levels, says "everything is on the table" for discussion, including strict measures that may not sit well with businesses.

Nearby Scottsdale, Ariz., for instance, is considering an ordinance to ban wood-burning fireplaces in new homes. Builders plan to fight the measure.

In Las Vegas, the country's fastest growing city, smog has become a significant problem and the pollution alerts are coming earlier and earlier each year.

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"Only three weeks into 1996, the EPA told the city it had reached non-compliance" for air quality standards, says Robert Parker, an urban expert at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "They rank Las Vegas with New York City in fifth place in terms of air pollution."

As a result, the city is expected to "go for restraints" on growth, Dr. Parker says, from stricter regulation of heavy construction and industry to a program to discourage wood-burning stoves.

Yet some cities seem to be getting smog under control. Albuquerque, N.M., which in 1983 violated federal carbon-monoxide standards 75 times, was recently removed from the EPA's list of polluters.

Studies had determined that emissions from wood-burning fireplaces accounted for one-third of the city's carbon monoxide. So Albuquerque implemented "no-burn" days, especially on winter nights when seasonal patterns of air inversions trap rising warm air under a blanket of cold air.

The result: Albuquerque, a metropolitan area of 475,000 residents, hasn't violated air-quality levels for carbon monoxide for the past four years.

"The biggest challenge will be broader than just air quality; it's the question of sustainable community and growth," said Sarah Kotchian, director of Albuquerque's Environmental Health Department.

Albuquerque now is addressing pollution as a barrier to future growth in several ways.

For example, city government is trying to find ways to encourage development of uninhabited areas of the city first before undertaking development in outlying areas. The idea is to slow the pace of urban sprawl.

"We now understand as a community that if we continue to sprawl, we won't be able to either service the new areas or improve our air quality," Ms. Kotchian says.

With the "infill" program, the city is also developing a mixed-use plan that would place hotels and residences within walking distance of shops and businesses, thereby reducing dependence on automobiles, which account for two-thirds of Albuquerque's airborne carbon monoxide.

Metropolitan Albuquerque is also involved in a long-range regional transportation study to set up a transit system.

But while smaller cities are more able to react quickly, urban centers like Denver move at a more glacial pace. The Mile-High City, which implemented the US's first oxygenated-fuels program to combat carbon monoxide in the US, last year complied with ozone and particulate levels, and barely exceeded acceptable carbon-monoxide levels.

Ken Lloyd, executive director of the Denver Regional Air Quality Council, says the challenge of future growth is formidable. "We are going to be doubling the amount that we travel over the next 20 years, And the population is going to increase 50 percent."

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