U.S. EPA finalizes approval of California's clean air plans

California's air is the worst in the nation. New programs may help us breathe a little easier.

by Alice Martinez

he U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) announced its final approval of California's plans to meet federal health standards in six areas of the state that suffer from unhealthy levels of ozone pollution in the air. Ozone - the primary ingredient in smog - plagues many urban areas around the country, but its highest levels and most severe health impacts are still found in the Los Angeles basin and other areas of California including Ventura and Sacramento.

Under the Clean Air Act, states with unhealthful air quality are required to submit plans demonstrating how health standards for ground-level ozone, or smog, will be met by the deadlines set forth in the law. Ground-level ozone causes health problems by damaging lung tissue and sensitizing the lungs to other irritants. Studies show that regular exposure to ozone at concentrations found in many heavily populated areas of California can significantly reduce lung function in normal, healthy people during periods of moderate exercise. People with asthma, the elderly and children are especially at risk.

"The EPA's goal has always been to work with the state to develop its own clean air plan that makes economic and environmental sense for the people of California. We are approving this plan, which sets out a blueprint for the state to bring healthy air to all Californians," said Felicia Marcus, regional administrator for U.S. EPA's western region. "But even with this important first step, we must remain vigilant to ensure that public health is protected and that today's commitment turns into action."

Holding smog in check

The plan, which includes "Smog Check II" to identify and crack down on "gross polluters," is already under attack (see related story on Smog Check II, page 8). State Senate President Pro Tem Dill Lockyer, D-San Leandro, and 61 other state legislators called for a temporary suspension of Smog Check II due to complaints and lobbying by gross polluters and mechanics seeing the new system as threatening to their interests.

Initially submitted in late 1994, the plan received preliminary approval early this year pending public review and comment. In the interim, innovative state programs such as those requiring cleaner-burning fuels and improved vehicle maintenance have already begun contributing to improved air quality. In addition, U.S. EPA recently proposed to tighten national emission standards for heavy-duty trucks and buses, finalized new standards for lawn and garden equipment and marine vessels. Together with California, they reached an agreement with manufacturers to establish stringent standards for diesel engines used in construction and farm equipment. These and other initiatives will benefit air quality in California and throughout the country.

Worse to just bad

Although California's air quality has improved markedly in recent years, it remains the worst in the nation. More than three-quarters of all Californians are currently exposed to health-threatening levels of air pollution, and the South Coast air basin exceeded national health standards for smog on 98 days in 1995.

California's State Implementation Plan covers seven areas - the South Coast (including Los Angeles), Southeast Desert, Ventura, Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Diego, and Santa Barbara air basins. The Clean Air Act sets the attainment deadlines for the areas based upon the extent of their existing pollution. The South Coast must attain the health-based air quality standards by 2010, the Southeast Desert by 2007, Ventura and Sacramento by 2005, San Joaquin and San Diego by 1999, and Santa Barbara by 1996.

The plans for the seven areas include emission inventories, rate-of-progress plans, air quality modeling, attainment demonstrations, and control measure commitments. U.S. EPA is formally approving all of the plan elements except for Santa Barbara. The agency is not acting on Santa Barbara's plan at this time because of recorded ozone violations this year.

U.S. EPA is also exploring opportunities for further emission reductions. With a public meeting in Los Angeles two months ago, U.S. EPA kicked off a yearlong consultative process in which representatives of industry, environmental groups, and state and local governments will work together to find the best solutions for reducing pollution from wide-traveling sources such as jet airliners and ships. Further emission reductions from sources such as these could play an important role in the attainment of air quality standards in California's heavily polluted areas, as well as improving air quality in other parts of the country. U.S. EPA expects to hold a second meeting in the Los Angeles area in October or November, focusing on ways to reduce pollution at the ports and airports.

The text of U.S. EPA's final action is available on the Internet's World Wide Web at the U.S. EPA Region 9 site (http://www.epa.gov/region09) under Air Programs.