Far-reaching plan to clean up Los Angeles air faces setback. Businesses say proposal would hurt local economy

How do you clean up the nation's dirtiest urban ceiling? That debate is swirling anew here in southern California - and its outcome holds implications for millions of area residents and much of urban America.

At issue is a sweeping 20-year plan to fight smog in the Los Angeles basin. The proposal, put forward by a regional regulatory authority, has the backing of environmental groups and some political leaders.

But the plan has run into stiff opposition, particularly from the business community, which says it is too costly and could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. The proposed rules would touch on virtually every aspect of life in southern California.

How the dispute is ultimately resolved is being closely watched by cities across the country. As the nation's smoggiest area and the one with the toughest controls, southern California and the state as a whole, are often looked to for the air-quality rules they set.

A final vote on the plan was to have been made today by the governing board of the regulatory authority, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). But the district decided at the last minute, for procedural reasons, to recommend delaying the decision until early next year.

Even so, debate over the plan and various alternatives is likely only to intensify between now and next March, when the proposal is expected to come up for a vote again.

Behind the brouhaha lie some fundamental questions that many cities are being forced to grapple with:

Can intractable air pollution problems be solved without hobbling local economies?

How much of a sacrifice are residents willing to make to clean up their skies?

``All I know is that this is going to be a knock-down-drag-out fight for years,'' says Larry Berg, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who serves on the AQMD board.

That the air over Los Angeles needs scrubbing no one disputes. The four-county Los Angeles basin violates four of the six federal standards for air quality. At times the ozone levels are three times federal health standards. It is the only area that has failed to comply with federal nitrogen dioxide levels.

The AQMD plan, which has been billed as the ``final assault on smog,'' maps out a strategy for bringing the area into compliance with federal clean-air regulations within 20 years. The strategy was more than three years in the making.

Major new controls, for instance, are envisioned on industries and motor vehicles, including requirements for electric-powered cars and buses that run on cleaner-burning fuels. The plan proposes placing new residential developments closer to employment centers, so there would be less commuting. Paints and solvents are called for that give off fewer smog-creating fumes.

Although local environmentalists would like to see even tougher controls in some areas, they have generally supported the plan. Businesses, however, are concerned about its impact on the economy and are pitching their own, less-costly air-quality blueprints.

``We need to make sure that as we are cleaning the air we are not cleaning pocketbooks as well,'' says Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The business-oriented California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance estimates the AQMD's proposal would cost $12.2 billion a year and mean the loss of 33,000 jobs. Another study, this one paid for by the AQMD, pegged the cost of implementing the initial regulations at $5.6 billion and 16,400 jobs.

But the AQMD vigorously disputes both findings. It has put the annual tab of the first phase at $2.6 billion.

Both the Western Oil and Gas Association and a local utility have proposed alternative plans that they say will reduce ozone pollution sooner and at less cost than the AQMD strategy. AQMD officials, however, fault them for not addressing all the major air pollutants.

Now that a decision on the district's plan has been delayed, all three proposals are likely to get a thorough going-over.

Business interests and some local government officials had sought a delay for this very reason. But the postponement is probably as much an embarrassment for the AQMD as it is a victory for opponents.

AQMD officials had said they were ready to go with a vote and in recent days had been vigorously fending off calls for a delay. They had also lined up support from California's two United States senators as well as some other state politicians and members of the public.

The delay now means the controversial plan, already a year late, will not come up for a vote for at least 2 months. Lobbying on both sides is likely to pick up.

Whether the AQMD will alter its plan at all remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, one party interested in what the regional authority will do is the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It has been under court order to impose its own clean air plan on the basin because the AQMD's existing plan does not show it can meet federal clean air standards quickly enough.

The agency had been hoping to base its plan on the AQMD proposal, but with the delay the agency will now probably have to move forward on its own.

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