AQMD Clean-Air Plan Puts Heavy Burden on Business

By LAURENCE DARMIENTO
Staff Reporter

It's getting more expensive than ever for businesses, governments and residents to clean up L.A.'s dirty air.

That's the bottom line of a new economic analysis completed this month by the South Coast Air Quality Management District of its latest plan to have the Los Angeles region meet federal clean air standards by 2010.

Though the analysis contends that the economic benefits of carrying out the plan far outweighs its estimated $3.1 billion average annual cost, not everyone agrees especially since the plan is far from complete.

New air pollution reduction measures only get L.A. about one-third of the way to the 2010 goal. The rest of the plan is undefined and reliant on the help of federal and state entities to regulate pollution sources that aren't under the AQMD's control.

The AQMD largely has authority to regulate so-called stationary sources, such as manufacturing plants, refineries and grease-emitting restaurants. Other big polluters, such as automobiles and trucks, are regulated by state and federal agencies.

"The most important point made by this report is that the stakes are enormous in terms of jobs, quality of life and economic impact on the region as a whole," said Bob Wyman, an environmental attorney who represents a coalition of aerospace, petrochemical and other affected industries. "That puts a premium on identifying the least costly strategies."

The analysis indicates that it will be far more expensive to continue to make progress in cleaning up L.A.'s air.

The 36 clean-air measures identified will cost $1.6 billion annually to implement, while the remaining unidentified measures are estimated to cost another $1.4 billion. Rounding brings the total to $3.1 billion.

The clean air plan in place today was estimated at its completion in 1997 to cost $1.9 billion annually (in constant dollars).

Diminishing returns

The latest study points out that regulators have been underestimating car emissions, so there is more pollution in the air than previously thought. At the same time, it's also true that L.A.'s air is cleaner, so making further reductions on those gains is likely to be harder.

The economic benefits the new plan will bring are also far from firm.

The estimated $7.4 billion in annual benefits outstrips the estimated $4.7 billion positive impact of the current plan. But the new plan's benefits largely derive from such hard-to-quantify factors as increased housing values and congestion relief from regional road improvement projects. (Future transportation projects are included in the plan, even though they are being done with the primary aim of improving traffic flow.)

By comparison, most of the economic benefits of the current plan came from improved public health resulting in fewer hospitalizations, missed workdays and the like. But with the air so much cleaner than it has been in the past, any new pollution control measures will have a smaller relative benefit on health, according to the district.

The single biggest identified air quality improvement in the new plan would come from further reformulations of various coatings and solvents. There are also plans to further reduce emissions at refineries, restaurants and manufacturing sites as well as novel efforts, such as lowering emissions from wood burning stoves and electrifying truck stops to cut down on dirty diesel emissions.

The AQMD is also asking for help from the state, with its regulatory authority over California's motor vehicle fleet, and the federal government, with its authority over planes, boats, trains and interstate trucks, as well as many off-road vehicles.

"We need both the California Air Resources Board and the (federal) Environmental Protection Agency to step up to the plate," said Laki Tisopulos, an assistant deputy executive officer at the district.

Under a recently issued plan at the state level, several novel proposals could be put in place. One pilot program would pay for installing new emissions systems in some older highly polluting cars.

Federal officials also say that the EPA is moving forward with plans to regulate construction vehicles. It is also examining locomotive admissions, but environmentalists are wary of the Bush Administration's commitment.

Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, an L.A.-based advocacy group, said both the states and the federal government could do more to assist Los Angeles in cleaning up its air by cracking down on polluting older cars, as well as ships, planes and trains. But he praised the AQMD's economic analysis as a fair look at both the costs and benefits of air pollution control, whatever the final form of the clean air plan turns out to be.

"These analyses are very important in dispelling the widely held belief in the business community that environmental regulations are all about costs with no benefits," he said. "I see a regular cost to our society from air pollution."

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