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Heat Rises Over Clean-Air Proposal

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 1996


New clean-air standards proposed this week may affect how Americans light their backyard barbeques next Fourth of July. In time, they could also shape how families heat their water, mow their lawns, use their leaf blowers, commute to work, or fly across the country.

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The tighter standards, proposed Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency, are the most far-reaching environmental initiative of the Clinton administration yet. The plan undoubtedly would mean higher costs for goods and services from doughnuts to taxis, but if all goes as EPA wants, people from Maine to San Diego will also breathe a lot easier.

"This is the culmination of scientific study and environmental activism brewing since the Carter administration," says Larry Berg, former political scientist at the University of Southern California. To wit: tighter national standards for ozone and particulate emissions that make up smog.

But even before proponents turn the ignition on their new proposal, critics from corporations to Congress are trying to cut the choke. Take Swift Transportation, a trucking firm in Phoenix.

At EPA urging, the company switched to trucks with cleaner-burning diesel engines. Ironically, the newer engines break emissions into smaller particles that become airborne more easily than the larger ones, which tended to fall to the ground.

"For us, it's a little frustrating because we alone have invested tens of millions of dollars in these new engines, and now they [EPA] are saying, 'Well, maybe that is not the way to go,'" says Dave Berry, vice president for Swift, the nation's fourth-largest truckload carrier. "We are willing to help clean up the air, but don't punish us for being cooperative."

Such moves, say observers, result in higher shipping costs, which are indirectly borne by consumers.

The proposed standards are scheduled to become permanent in June, but between now and then observers are expecting an intense political battle to be waged. At issue is whether the benefits - measured primarily by lower health-care costs resulting from fewer smog-related illnesses - in fact exceed the multibillion-dollar price tag attached to the clean-air plan.

Business leaders are not alone in their concerns. If the proposed standard becomes permanent in June, as scheduled, at least 100 cities and more than 215 counties could find themselves in regulatory jail.

"Hundreds of communities that [earlier] were in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act will no longer be so," says Diane Shea, associate legislative director for the National Association of Counties. Even suburban and rural communities may have to change the way their schools generate heat, their kitchens collect fumes, and their garages release exhaust, she says. "Anyway you cut it, this is going to be extremely expensive."

Having lost their skirmish with the EPA, opponents of the agency's proposals are taking their case to Congress, which is preparing to rewrite the Clean Air Act next year. Already, the battle lines are being drawn in what could be a bruising fight that tests the much-touted "era of cooperation" on Capitol Hill.