A plan to battle the return of California's smog days

The state faces stiff penalties if it doesn't shed 400 tons of airborne pollution by the 2010 clean-air deadline.

Cruise ships that "plug in" to electrical sockets at docks rather than idle their giant pollution-spewing engines. Mobile, ozone-sensing equipment that seeks out heavily polluting cars and trucks on highways. New catalytic converters for cars as little as a decade old.

Those are among the strategies in play as the most air-polluted state in America steps up its fight against smog. Last week, state air officials adopted a masterplan as thick as a telephone book - and that means even more rules to govern the use of products such as hair spray and bug bombs, and controls on lawn care, charbroiling, and fueling pleasure boats.

The sheer quantity and specificity of the new ideas, however, is an indicator that the nation may be running out of the bigger, silver bullets such as reformulated gasolines, vapor collection, and standard catalytic converter use. In this key state, certainly, evidence is rising that hard-fought gains of recent years are being overtaken by industry and population growth.

"For 25 years, California has been the nation's leading innovator in technologies and policies of how to improve air quality," says Arthur Winer, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California.

"We may also be the leading indicator that nationally we are running out of the technological fixes that will get us the rest of the way in meeting federal standards."

The goal, as it has been in years past, is to achieve federal clean air standards by the year 2010 - or face the possible penalty of restrictions on business expansion or the loss of billions in federal highway funds. California's "clean fleet" buses are already being challenged by the Bush administration in the US Supreme Court. And now added to the mix are promises from incoming governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to remove obstacles to business as a way of reversing California's sagging fiscal fortunes.

What happened to clearer skies?

Los Angeles five years ago claimed its cleanest skies in five decades - and handed the title of national smog capital to Houston. But the increased traffic congestion and population growth are once again producing the visible stagnant haze that hangs over the city like a pot lid.

And with the return of smog days comes more formal health cautions to outdoor recreationists and heightened concerns for the elderly and very young. Several Stage 1 smog alerts were issued this summer - the first time since 1998 - because of extended hot weather and high pressure systems that cause air inversions to trap ozone gases.

"This is about more than just returning a regular view of the mountains on the horizon, this is about public health," says Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air. "California has taken the lead in going even further than the federal government has been willing to go nationally, but pollution has caught up again and we're being forced to be more creative."

The new plan includes more than 50 new controls such as bans on older styles of jet skis, requirements that owners of older cars retrofit them with modern pollution controls, regulations to put soot traps on older diesels and buses, the electrifying of all cranes at ports, and modifying fork lifts and construction equipment.

But experts say these efforts are not enough. Roughly speaking, about 400 tons of airborne pollution is produced across southern California daily, and the new rules address only about 100 tons. "Did we take a step in the right direction and do more? Yes ... but there is still a giant hole in the plan," says Mr. Carmichael.

Looming deadline

State officials respond that the state still has seven years to meet the standard and hopes that air-management boards, industry, and individuals will continue to identify specific controls in coming years.

"We don't want to trivialize how difficult this will be in getting new reductions to come online," says Elaine Chang, deputy officer for planning transportation programs at the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "We are directing all staff and agencies to come back every year with new ideas on how to close this gap."

The California experience is critical in pushing national manufacturers to fall in line with less-polluting products. But part of the problem is the public perception that L.A.'s air pollution problems are a thing of the past. "Unless that complacency changes there is no way that California is going to meet its air-quality standards by its deadline," says Suzanne Paulson, an atmospheric scientist at UCLA.

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