More cities in West fighting smog. Albuquerque, Phoenix, others trying voluntary auto restrictions

When Katherine Lee Bates visited this town at the foot of snow-shod Pikes Peak in 1911, she was so captivated with the view that she penned the song ``America the Beautiful.'' Today the vista, though still breathtaking, can be impaired on certain days by a skim-milk haze. So this month, an advertising campaign has been blitzing the airwaves admonishing residents not to drive on bad pollution days and to be aware of the growing problem of smudged skies.

``Can Colorado Springs remain `beautiful for spacious skies?''' asks one radio spot ominously.

Colorado Springs is not alone. In varying degrees, a growing number of small cities across the West are becoming concerned about the emerging problem of air pollution.

There is good reason for the anxiety. Some of the communities do not meet federal clean-air standards. Continued violation could lead to sanctions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the loss of millions of dollars of federal highway money.

But loss of funds aside, many residents are concerned about the impact of dirty skies on the quality of life and economic growth in their regions. In many cases smog poses a direct threat to the communities' most celebrated assets: mountain vistas and pristine natural settings.

``The style of life here could deteriorate dramatically if we can't maintain our vistas and air quality,'' says Jim Easton, air-quality chief for the El Paso County Health Department, which includes Colorado Springs.

Most of the region's rapidly growing communities do not face the problems of the West's two smoggy bookends, Denver and Los Angeles. Nevertheless, pollution is becoming a dominant issue in a host of second-tier cities.

Phoenix-area leaders are scrambling to implement a 42-point plan that they hope will help ease one of the country's worst carbon monoxide pollution problems. The plan was fashioned at the end of last year as part of a lawsuit settlement with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.

The blueprint by the Maricopa (County) Association of Governments (MAG), a regional body, embraces a number of ideas to try to reduce traffic-related pollution. They include car-pooling, exploring the use of cleaner-burning fuels, and promotion of ``no-drive'' days.

Critics, however, don't think the MAG plan goes far enough. The law center plans to renew its court suit.

Even without such prodding, however, cleaning up the air has emerged as a dominant concern in traditionally laissez faire Phoenix.

Albuquerque, N.M., violated federal carbon monoxide standards 25 times last year - more than in 1985 but less than in 1984. Even so, on certain days, a ``brown cloud'' forms that partly obscures the scenic city's predominant natural asset, 10,000-foot Sandia Peak.

While part of the city's pollution problems stems from woodburning, much of it has to do with population growth and the attendant rise in automobile use. In 1985 the state legislature authorized a vehicle-emissions inspection program to combat the problem. But last November voters in the Albuquerque area rejected the mandatory plan. EPA has withheld some federal money from the city and county as a result of the flap. ``The pollution has been a lot worse in the last few years,'' says Sarah Kotchian, director of the city's Environmental Health Department.

Environmentalists in Sacramento, Calif., plan next month to file suit against local and county officials to prod them to take air quality more into account when planning for new growth. The capital city area, with some 1 million people, has few industrial polluters. Motor vehicles create 65 percent of the hydrocarbons that become smog. Thus, officials are looking at ways to change driving habits.

Although Sacramento has cleaner air than many other California cities, it has the potential for serious problems. The inland city is framed by several mountain ranges and experiences severe temperature ``inversions'' that hamper dispersion.

Other Western cities, including Albuquerque, are hampered in antipollution efforts by unusual geography and weather. Albuquerque is bordered on three sides by mountains and sits at high enough altitude, 5,000 feet, that cars don't run as efficiently, aggravating carbon monoxide problems.

Here in Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak blocks the perennial westerly winds that would whisk pollutants away.

For the most part, cities in the independent-minded region are relying on individual prerogative rather than coercion to deal with smog. For example, Phoenix is encouraging alternative work schedules to reduce rush-hour driving. Albuquerque promotes voluntary ``no burn'' nights but does not follow Denver's policy of outlawing use of wood stoves on befouled days.

Colorado Springs officials are banking mainly on education in their campaign, though that is partly because smog is a threat and not a crisis. Yet the city still violates federal clean-air standards several days a year, and, because of rampant growth, pollution levels are not improving.

``We don't want to find ourselves having the depth of the problem Denver does,'' says Mary Ellen McNally, a city councilwoman and co-chair of the recently formed Clean Air Consortium, a public-private group.

``We are going to try a voluntary campaign,'' says Ms. McNally. ``If that doesn't work, we are going to have to do other things.''

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