US Watches California's Smog Plan

Los Angeles's tough clean-air strategy is seen as a test of how far pollution controls can go. ENVIRONMENT

EVEN as Washington debates President Bush's plan to clean up the nation's skies, a far more radical blueprint is moving forward here amid continuing controversy. The struggle over the massive plan to clean up the Los Angeles basin - the nation's smoggiest area - is of more than passing interest.

As perhaps the industrialized world's most far-reaching test of how much people are willing to sacrifice in the name of clean skies, it is being closely watched in Congress and city halls across the US.

Indeed, even though Mr. Bush's proposal is less sweeping, elements of the southern California plan - which envisions new controls on everything from underarm deodorant to backyard barbecues - may eventually end up in a clean-air package that emerges from Congress.

Moreover, Los Angeles is on the cutting edge of trying to answer fundamental questions that all governments dealing with smog are being forced to weigh: Can skies be scrubbed clean without undermining the economy? How much will people change their life styles to accommodate the environment?

Since the general plan was approved by local regulatory and government officials in March, it has moved forward in the face of continuing opposition, mainly from business groups and unions. The first phase of the 20-year plan contains 123 separate controls on consumer and industrial products and processes, each of which has to be approved by local, state, or federal authorities.

So far only a few new rules have been adopted by the regional agency that drew up the plan, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). The rest remain to be imposed in the months and years ahead.

As the complex plan moves forward, businesses are only just beginning to understand the extent of its implications. Most don't like what they're learning. While all seem to agree the region has a unique smog problem, they question the wisdom of imposing so many new rules ``so quickly.''

``There is a lot more to the plan than people realize,'' says Theresa Pugh, director of environmental quality for the National Association of Manufacturers, which recently met in Los Angeles to discuss the plan's impact. ``It will change the way in which almost every company operates.''

The plan calls for tough new controls on traditional pollution targets like oil refineries, automakers, and utilities. But it also would impose strictures on smaller entities not normally associated with befouling the skies. For instance:

You know those aromas that waft from bakeries? They may be pleasing to the nose but come from compounds that pollute the air. Large bakeries would have to install special equipment to reduce gases.

Tire companies would be able to sell only radial tires, instead of the traditional bias-ply versions. Bias-ply tires wear out faster and give off particulates that reduce visibility.

The number of drive-through windows at banks and fast-food restaurants would probably be limited or redesigned, because cars waiting in line give off so much carbon monoxide.

Sales of barbecues that rely on starter fluid, or the starter fluid itself, might be banned.

Lawn mowers may have to switch from gas engines to electric motors or burn methanol fuel.

Dry cleaners would have to install equipment that eliminates the transfer of clothes from washer to dryer, a process that contributes to pollutants being released into the air.

``I'm not sure a lot of the smaller dry cleaners are going to be able to make it,'' says George Laumann Jr., head of the California Fabricare Institute, an association of dry cleaners and launderers.

The full cost of the plan is difficult to gauge: The third and final phase, ending in 2007, would rely on breakthroughs in pollution-control technology not now even commercially available.

Critics have pegged the overall cost as high as $12.8 billion a year - $2,200 per household in the four-county area - and maintain it will cause massive business flight and job loss.

Not so, says the AQMD. It estimates the tab for Tier I controls at $2.9 billion over 20 years and believes these losses will be more than offset by savings that come with cleaner air: fewer medical expenses, reduced absenteeism at work, less crop damage from smog. The agency also expects the plan, at worst, will only slow the rate of job growth.

While this macro debate goes on, businesses are still trying to fathom how their production processes and business operations might be changed by the rules.

Among the industries hardest hit would be automakers. Despite their contentions that the goals are unrealistic, the plan calls for 40 percent of all cars and 70 percent of trucks to be running on methanol or other ``clean'' fuels by 1998.

Oil refiners in the area estimate one rule alone could cost their industry $1 billion. Paints and other coatings used on everything from houses to helicopters would have to be reformulated so they give off fewer fumes. Even truckers are wondering what making freight deliveries at night, which they may be required to do, will mean for customers.

Still, since each rule has to be adopted individually, the political heat from the business community can be expected to rise in the future. Stay tuned.

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