EPA building ban won't clear the air, critics say

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday a ban on construction in Los Angeles of facilities that cause increased air pollution. The building moratorium in the nation's second-largest city follows months of uncertainty about how the EPA would enforce the air quality standards of the Clean Air Act, the deadline for which expired last December 31.

The ban prohibits the construction of any new facility that would emit more than 100 tons of pollutants a year. Modifications to existing facilities would be allowed provided the modification would cause pollutant emissions to increase no more than 40 tons a year.

Yesterday's announcement brought mixed reactions, even from groups pushing for more stringent air quality controls. According to many observers, the penalties can only force compliance with old air quality plans, when it is new plans and deadlines that are needed. The only real benefit of sanctions is to push politicians to act on new clean air legislation, they note.

``It doesn't touch smallish and medium-sized factories ... and it doesn't touch big factories unless they are new,'' says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

``The irony is that Los Angeles is going to be sanctioned, but the reality is that LA has the most innovative and stringent control program,'' says Bill Becker of State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, a lobby group for state and local air regulators. ``The construction ban does not prohibit motor vehicle traffic, which in LA happens to be one of the major roots of the problem,'' he says.

Last year, Congress passed the so-called Mitchell-Conte amendment that forbade EPA from imposing penalties under the Clean Air Act until August 31, 1988. But in the absence of any further congressional action, EPA says it may impose penalties on as many as 14 cities before year's end.

The ban in Los Angeles follows EPA action in January in which the agency rejected the southern California-area plan to implement clean air measures. EPA was required to reject the plan by order of the United States District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a case brought by the Coalition for Clean Air - a Santa Monica, Calif.-based citizens group.

``Los Angeles is the first of a number of areas that will have sanctions imposed on them for failure to develop and implement adequate plans to address ozone or carbon monoxide problems,'' said EPA Administrator Lee Thomas, in a written statement.

``The Clean Air Act requires that bans on construction of major new sources of these pollutants be placed on those areas not in compliance,'' Mr. Thomas said.

EPA announced in July of last year its intention to reject the implementation plans of as many as 13 other areas, including the Chicago suburbs, Denver, Reno, Nev., East St. Louis, Ill., Cleveland, Dallas, Atlanta, the suburbs of Louisville, Ky., and the California cities of Bakersfield, Sacramento, and Fresno.

The agency said it would decide before the end of the year whether the implementation plans put forward for those areas would be rejected and which areas would face penalties.

Over 100 US cities have failed to attain air quality standards mandated by 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act. The law requires EPA to impose penalties (including construction bans and witholding federal funds for highway contruction and sewage treatment facilities) on communities that fail to meet the standards. Since 1983, however, EPA has interpreted the Clean Air Act as not requiring the agency to impose penalties simply because an area is not attaining the standards.

Rather, EPA has interpreted the act to require the agency to impose sanctions only if an area fails either to adopt a plan that contains measures necessary for timely attainment or to implement the plan after its approval by EPA, the agency says.

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