Losers in Smog Battle Try End-Run Attack

After the costliest lobby against an environmental regulation failed, critics set sights on Capitol Hill.

With the Environmental Protection Agency gearing up to implement the toughest new clean-air regulations in a decade, opponents aren't giving up the fight.

They've moved their sights away from swaying public opinion and are now concentrating on Capitol Hill. Their strategy: to persuade lawmakers to reverse a bitter loss and put a moratorium on the new EPA standards for smog and soot. They're also challenging the legality of the new rules.

"This is the biggest assertion of regulatory authority by any agency in American history," says C. Boyden Gray, chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), a business lobbying group in Washington. "The EPA is asserting the statutory right to regulate all pollution down to zero."

Supporters contend that's a gross exaggeration and a continuation of the "scare tactics" and misinformation campaign mounted by a coalition of business groups in one of the costliest, most comprehensive lobbying efforts ever mounted against proposed environmental regulations. Costing tens of millions of dollars, it also was a failure.

But that hasn't deterred opponents. They are pushing a bill that would slap a moratorium on the new standards until more scientific research is done.

If this additional research justifies the new standards, the EPA could implement them without "losing one day" from its original implementation schedule, says Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan. The EPA plan gives communities up to 10 years to monitor their air quality and come up with an implementation plan before they have to meet any new standards. But if the science proves the EPA wrong, says Representative Dingell, he'll have "saved the agency from its own folly."

Earlier this summer, President Clinton sided with EPA administrator Carol Browner and endorsed the new standards. Current levels of ozone, also known as smog, will have to be reduced by one-third under the new regulations. Super tiny airborne particles, 1/28th the width of a human hair, known as soot, will also be regulated for the first time.

It was probably the biggest victory of the decade for the EPA environmentalists. They contend the new standards are scientifically based, legally required adjustments that will save thousands of lives and help hundreds of thousands of children diagnosed with asthma.

"Clean and healthy air must be a priority," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a leading supporter.

But opponents insist the scientific justification for the new rules is shaky at best and implementation will be costly and cumbersome.

They also claim that more than 600 counties, three times as many as initially estimated by the EPA, will be knocked out of compliance with the Clean Air Act when the new standards are put into effect. That could force states, which are responsible for cleaning up their air, to take steps such as putting in centralized inspection stations to check automobile emissions. Some could increase tolls on highways and bridges, or put a tax on parking.

"Every modest production change on an [assembly] line can require the approval of regulators if it means a change in emissions," says Dingell.

But the EPA insists there is no way to determine which counties will be in compliance and which ones won't because no monitoring of the new soot standard has yet been done. The EPA charges the opponents have taken historical data and extrapolated the impact of the new standards wrongly. The list of counties is being used, say environmentalists, to scare local officials to put pressure on their congressmen.

"These are the same critics - large polluters and their supporters - who once said the new standards will mean an end to backyard barbecues," says EPA spokeswoman Loretta Ucelli. "All of these charges are patently untrue."

Ms. Ucelli insists the effort currently under way by the states to implement new, regional clean-air plans will cause such dramatic reductions in pollutants that the vast majority of counties will already be in compliance by the time they have to meet the new standards.

But such assurances don't mollify the opponents. Dingell and supporters have already got 130 of their colleagues to sign on to the new bill. Mr. Shays counters that even if the bill passes Congress, there is already enough support to sustain a veto.

"The League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, they'd love to have a vote," says Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust, an environmental lobbying group in Washington. "It will help them develop their list of targets for the next election campaign."

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