Heat Rises Over Clean-Air Proposal

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.

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.

"The absence of sound, cost-benefit analysis by the federal government ... has undermined the public's confidence in the current direction of national clean-air policymaking," wrote Ohio Gov. George Voinovich (R) to US EPA Administrator Carol Browner on Monday. He is one of at least 14 governors formally challenging the EPA, as well as 500 top corporations and businesses from General Motors and Ford to Chevron and Mobil.

"The people must be reassured that any new ozone standard will be justified by sound cost-benefit analysis," said Governor Voinovich.

But other see the situation differently.

"This will be a watershed test of whether the Republicans can earn back the trust of voters on the environment," says Mr. Berg. "It will be pretty hard to sound good arguing against the public health in light of [recent] evidence."

What brought about the new push was increased lobbying by health and environmental groups, plus the added ammunition of new research that shows decreased lung capacity among even healthy adults and children under current standards. In addition, a lawsuit brought by the National Lung Association required the EPA to devise new standards.

"The [scientific] consensus is that [ozone and particulate] standards that exist today are not in fact the right standards. They need to change," says Mary Nichols, EPA assistant administrator for air issues. "We believe these proposals will recognize and take action to protect the most sensitive populations, particularly children."

Under current standards, ozone exceeding 0.12 ppm (parts per million) in a single hour puts a metropolitan region in violation. The new limit requires communities to cut ozone emissions by a third, to 0.08 ppm, averaged over eight hours. Not curbing such violations could lead to a cutoff of billions of dollars in federal highway and other funds for a region.

The new standard for particulate matter - airborne soot, nitrates, sulfates, and other dust - limits the size of emitted particles to less than 2.5 microns (a human hair width is about 70 microns). Currently, particles under 10 microns are limited. A change to the smaller standard is likely to dramatically affect the use of cars and trucks - especially those using diesel fuel - and the operation of power plants.

The impact may be even more immediate for consumers. Jerry Johns, a vice president at Fleischli Oil Company in Denver, predicts higher prices at the gasoline pumps. "The biggest thing is that it will force refineries to reformulate fuels," he says, "which costs everybody." Fuel costs could increase 15 to 20 cents per gallon, he says.

In California, which has the nation's dirtiest skies and state regulations that already exceed those of the federal EPA, the new regulations have both good and bad consequences.

"They will level the playing field in some sense because now businesses will not be inclined to flee to less-stringent states," says Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles Economic Development Council. "But I am concerned that increased business costs will slow down the state's nascent economic recovery."

* Jillian Lloyd in Denver and William Carlisle in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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