California irony: inspection law could mean more smog

As smog season returns along with California's first hot weather, attempts to solve the state's tough air-pollution problems are very much up in the air. threatened with cutoff of some federal funds and a ban on major industrial construction, California is under the gun to implement annual pollution-control inspection of its 15 million autos. At the same time, considerable political pressure is being exerted to relax the state's tough emission standards, levels of allowable pollution significantly lower than the federal government requires.

Under 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1970, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was to have approved by July 1979 new state clean-air plans for "nonattainment areas." Such areas (which do not meet federal air-quality standards) are found in all states except North Dakota. Few states met that deadline; California was among the tardy.

California, as well as several other major metropolitan states, was required to conduct an annual smog-control inspection and maintenance program as part of its air-quality plan. Currently, smog devices here are checked only when automobiles are first registered or resold. Meanwhile, many become less efficient or are tampered with.

The California Legislature is advancing several bills that would mandate annual inspections. At stake not only is cleaner air in California, but also major new private construction and some $2 billion in federal grants for highway and waste-water treatment facility construction.

This is because the state has failed to meet Clean Air Act requirements. Now the EPA has banned any new construction that could contribute pollution in nonattainment areas in California. EPA regional administrator Paul DeFalco is waiting to see if the state Legislature passes an annual inspection bill before he recommends stronger action -- snapping the federal coffers shut on highway and waste-water funds.

There seems little doubt that California soon will adopt annual auto inspections, but it may be in a way that some observers say could result in more smog.

Under heavy pressure from auto dealers and manufacturers, the legislature seems certain to pass a law easing California's strict emissions standards.

To revert to the less-stringent federal standards would increase auto emissions about 25 percent, warns the state Air Resources Board -- particularly troublesome nitrogen oxides, the chief component of California's infamous smog. At present, the state standard for this tailpipe culprit is less than half the allowable federal level. The lower federal standards would mean an additional 1 ,400 tons of air pollution every day, the Sierra Club insists.

Environmentalists also worry that backsliding on air standards in California could affect clean-air efforts nationwide. Several other states with serious smog problems are considering California-style pollution standards. Some argue that California's experience in fighting smog has kept the pressure on Congress and federal agencies to clean up auto exhaust nationwide.

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