Air pollution: Is is really under control as Reagan claimed in Campaign?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor Los Angeles

It happens most days along about noon, especially during the late summer and early fall. Smog starts to ooze out of Los Angeles like rising bread dough spilling over the sides of a small bowl.

At the same time that the afternoon ocean breeze starts rolling the smog eastward, it begins to push the air pollution from Orange County, south of Los Angeles, northeast along the Santa Ana caynon. These bodies of smog converge on, and engulf, much of Riverside County in the early afternoon.

Air pollution in and around Los Angeles is substantially out of control. Local readings show it decreased from 1970 to 1977, but in 1978 it was worse than in 1977, and in 1979 it was worse than in 1978. This year is shaping up to be the same as 1979.

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So it was with some misgiving that many people here heard Ronald Reagan say in October, during his campaign for the presidency, that air pollution in the United States is "substantially under control." At the same time, he suggested that this might be the time to relax the Clean Air Act of 1972, which set standards for pollution levels and controls.

Mr. Reagan echoed the longstanding complaint of American industry that the stringent and costly rules and timetables imposed on them by the act robs companies of much-needed capitol for expansion and modernization.

The US Department of Commerce reports that industry will have spent almost $8 billion on pollution control equipment for 1980. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), industry investment in air and water pollution control programs will run to $95.5 billion between 1977 and 1986.

The Clean Air Act comes up for renewal in the next session of Congress, and the controversy over whether to cut back on its requirements promises to be a hot one. Industry feels it finally has friends in both the White House and new Republician-dominated Senate.

But environmentalists are not so sure Reagan is the enemy his early statements indicate him to be. He has laid down no concrete intentions for changing the act, and a member of the Reagan transition team for the EPA would only say: "We are examining the air pollution issue very closely. We certainly recognize that polluted air is not good for anybody, and I think the President-elect's record as governor of California demonstrates a commitment to cleaning up the environment."

Is air pollution substantially under control? For the country as a whole, the answer is undoubtedly yes, say participants on all sides of the issue. According to the EPA, 90 percent of the industrial sources of air pollution are in compliance with the the Clean Air Act, and the same holds true of automobile exhaust emissions.

However, air pollution remains a problem, particularly in cities. Most of them regularly violate federal air standards. The 10 percent of industrial sources -- notably power plants and the steel and other heavy metal industries -- that are not in compliance with the EPA rules emit the worst and most pollutants, says agency spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. They also have put up the most resistance to meeting standards.

The US also faces a nasty cloud of new, second-generation pollutants, brought on ironically by efforts to control the original group. Acid rain stands in the forefront of these.

Referring to automobile-caused pollution, Mr. Fitzwater notes that "The problem we are looking at there is that the control devices often break down and do not function as well as they do at the factory when they are tested."

As a solution, the EPA has ordered 29 states to come up with annual auto inspection programs. So far, 27 states have complied. Two -- California and Kentucky -- have not. On Dec. 11, the agency announced it would cut off federal highway funds to those two states

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