Polluters whine as state gets serious about air pollution

The media needs a reality-check over its coverage of Smog Check II

by Carolyn Chase

he simpering whine of anti-government right-wingers first became audible about California's new Smog Check II program a couple of weeks ago. I was appearing on a county cable TV show for Pollution Prevention Week along with a local talk-radio show host. "The people are up in arms over Smog Check II," he said. "It's all over the airwaves ... they're saying Smog Check II is a plot to confiscate their cars." "Huh?" I replied. "Doesn't seem too likely to me."

The irony was not lost on me afterward when the latest poll arrived touting American concern for the environment. This week's installment trumpeted: "PUBLIC WANTS TOUGHER CLEAN AIR STANDARDS, NEW POLL FINDS - Americans want tougher clean air standards to protect children with asthma, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Clean Air Trust." Evidently, they didn't check with the folks who find themselves busted in California's latest air pollution control program: Smog Check II.

Media madness

A few days later it was on TV. A brunette beauty playing the victim next to her hot red Ford explained how she'd been denied a registration for her car. She gasped angrily about the fact the state was requiring her to do something about her air pollution habit.

The following morning it was in the Union-Tribune: front page, color photo blaring the headline "Fuming over smog tests," with another half-page further back. The subheads reported, "some see law as government tyranny," and called it the "tailpipe rebellion."

Juicy but ridiculous quotes were reported as news. "'Baseball, apple pie and a '57 Chevy is the American way, and if they start seizing our old cars, it amounts to tyranny,' said an anonymous caller," was blared on the front page. Buried on the back page, you had to read further to discover, "Vehicles made in 1965 and before are exempt."

They painted a picture of governmental conspiracy by reporting that "a frequent radio-talk-guest" sees Smog Check II as "part of a web of interlocking laws that will allow local government to confiscate hundreds of thousands of older cars and destroy them to gain smog credits. The credits can be sold to companies that will pay thousands of dollars a car rather than install more costly controls on their smokestacks." The article later reported a state official noting the state cannot allow smog credits to be sold. Instead, they are being used to actually cut smog emissions as required by the EPA.

But why does the media lend credibility to this hysterical nonsense? At least they should balance it with hysteria from the other side. Where are the quotes from the American Lung Association, or the asthmatic kids, or folks with emphysema? Why not produce some real victims here? Why is whining treated as news? After all, don't most people try to justify themselves when they get busted? Why, I wonder, does it merit promotion when we're really - finally - getting around to making people responsible for their pollution?

Stopping gross polluters

The real news here is that the state is finally doing something to crack down on cheaters - some ignorant, others not. The government has been compelled to this solution because car-service people collude with consumers to do what they can to sell smog certificates without really fixing the cars.

With Smog Check II, the new status of "gross polluter" is given to cars and light trucks that emit an average of 18 times the program's allowable emissions levels. These levels are adjusted for the age and make of car, with older cars already allowed to pollute more.

When this type of gross pollution is measured, it is automatically reported to the state, and car owners must decide to fix it or take if off the road. The state estimates that 10 to 15 percent of vehicles fit in this category. In truth, these estimates may be too low. But the point of the law is to actually get the gross polluters fixed, i.e., to reduce air pollution.

I find it both curious and ironic that many automotive repair personnel are afraid of Smog Check II. Rather than seeing the government program as providing legitimate work repairing air pollution systems in cars, some mechanics are organizing to stop the law via PR campaigns which have resulted in biased media coverage - or requesting subsidies for the people who inevitably cannot afford to repair their car.

But nowhere did I see the media really discussing the benefits of getting these cars repaired or off the road. The end result of this program really can be much, much cleaner air. But you didn't hear too much of that through the PR channels. After all, clean air and water are easy to be for when you don't have to pay for it personally, or don't even realize that you are a gross polluter. What a shock! I know it's a always a bummer when something on my car breaks, but if I want to use the car, I have to find a way to fix it. I've seen some very poor people work monetary miracles when they had to keep a car running... but only when they had to.

The right-wing law-and-order types must suffer grave internal conflicts when it comes to issues like this. What seems to me to be a legitimate crackdown on fraud and abuse is seen by them as a threat to the American way of life. When they agree with a law, there's not enough money that can be spent to enforce it. But when they disagree with a law - or, heaven forbid, it might interrupt their cozy world - there should be hell to pay for the government domination. A friend of mine put it simply, "These people just don't want to be told what to do.... they've incorporated their teenage rebellion stage as a way of life."

Complainers: grow up and do the right thing. Gross polluters, whether corporations or individuals, should clean up their act. Repair shops ought to really repair cars. The media should do better than to promote the libertarian whiners and lazy fear mongers when reporting on the changes which will inevitably upset the comfortable, polluting status quo.

Gee, I can hardly wait til my next smog check!