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Pacoima Reality Check 

What do electric cars have to do with inner-city air quality?

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
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Wrong but Romantic; Right but Repulsive. This is the way we were taught, in the border state of Missouri, to view the respectively Southern and Northern sides in the Civil War. Back before we realized that the conflict had more to do with the future of African-Americans in this nation.

We were then taught that the one side was all about mansions in the moonlight, chivalry, culture and good manners, while the other was all about grimy industrial towns and greedy capitalists flogging ever-growing profits out of depraved and starving immigrants.

The Northern side happened, we were told, to be historically correct, but this was rather regrettable, wasn‘t it? I mean, wouldn’t you prefer those magnolias in the moonlight to the 12-hour working day, assuming, of course, that your skin was the proper color?

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I flashed back to this antique interpretation at a January meeting in Sacramento, where the pro- and anti-electric zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV--car factions testified before the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Environmentally speaking, there is nothing more romantic than the electric car: It runs so silently, it emits no pollutant, it segues gracefully in and out of traffic with powerful aplomb. And, oh yes, in this state of vast distances, it cannot be counted upon to get you from Santa Monica to Carpinteria without a stop for several hours on a battery charger. The ZEV cars‘ avatars counter this fault with two arguments: First, perhaps the storage battery will someday be improved. The second is that maybe you shouldn’t be driving to Carpinteria anyway.

The romantics scored in Sacramento. They persuaded the air board to ordain that 4,600 new zero-emission electric cars be made available to the auto-buying public next year. This was up from the 2,200 that the board staff had recommended last December, and down from the 22,000 originally proposed. Most of the car companies agreed to live with this -- which meant, I suppose, that they‘d rather eat the cost of 4,000-odd unsold E.V.s than that of over 20,000 of the things.

But not everyone agreed. Now GM, the biggest automaker of them all, is suing to have the mandate removed. Certainly, no one will be cheering Jimmy; in the general public’s opinion, the auto industry rates down there between the innovators of genetically engineered food and the tobacco industry. And, more than perhaps any other car company, GM has resisted 33 years of federal and state fuel-mileage, safety and pollution regulations; always GM said it couldn‘t be done. Always it was done. Now the firm is saying the same thing about the electric car. Okay, so they may be repulsive. But this time, they happen to be right.

GM sued the state on the grounds that, according to the CARB’s own figures, the pollution reduction generated by mandating electric vehicles would cost 150 times more than any other healthy-air option (cleaning up all the state‘s diesels, for instance). GM claims it would be many times more and says it wants clean air just as much as anyone else, but that electric cars, which cost nearly twice as much as gas cars and only appeal to a tiny section of the auto-buying public, are too costly a way to do that.

But I think GM simply figures that it is cheaper to sue the air board than to produce a couple of thousand electric cars at a cost of more than $100 million or so.

And I think the other manufacturers (like Ford and Honda), who agreed not to fight the mandate, have their own reasons too. They probably think that making 4,000 ZEVs -- most of which will probably rust away unsold on dealer lots the way Dodge 440 Magnums did during the 1970s fuel crisis -- is simply this year’s added price of doing business in the strange but vastly remunerative California car market.

None of which changes the fact that the ZEV-car mandate is not only silly, but regressive. The Associated Press quotes one Sandra Spelliscy of the Planning and Conservation League as saying, ”We are never going to have clean air unless we have zero-emission vehicles on the road.“ Spelliscy is here declaring an intellectual closed shop: that battery-powered cars are the only permissible pollution solution. Therefore, newer and more marketable pollution-reduction technologies should be ignored.

There is also an implication here that, with the ZEV car at center stage, other, more productive measures of improving air quality -- particularly in heavily impacted areas -- are being left in the shadows. The fumes of diesel-truck terminals, the intermittent chemical outpourings of electroplating factories and photo processors, are much more of a problem in the inner city than generalized air-quality levels. Does the CARB care?

All of which somehow takes us to the San Fernando Valley, to the hard-bitten, industrial-residential neighborhood of Pacoima. Where Assemblymen Tony Cardenas and Marco Firebaugh convened a budget hearing last week that focused on air-quality issues as they applied to the inner city.

Alan Lloyd, the CARB chair, was on hand, as were a few other CARB members and staffers. Their presence was in response to the two legislators‘ claims at last month’s air-board meeting that the CARB had been ignoring the everyday pollution problems of inner-city areas while quixotically promoting the ZEV car as an air-contamination panacea. Lloyd told the hundred or so people in Pacoima Middle School‘s auditorium that the CARB was interested in all kinds of local pollution abatement: He spoke of the needs of the Alameda Corridor and pollution mitigation in places like San Diego’s Barrio Logan, but stressed that ”The ZEV mandate is still an integral part of our program.“

Cardenas, however, seemed skeptical that the board, which includes no Hispanic members, really understood the priorities in places like Pacoima, which has generations of contamination in its soil and air. He spoke of his own past, when he helped his gardener father dump refuse all over the eastern San Fernando Valley. He said, ”Right here in Pacoima, we still have at least 10 [industrial] pollution sites.“ Mostly, though, he spoke of SB115, one of the state-legislative accomplishments of now-Congresswoman Hilda Solis. This ”environmental justice“ law specifies that benefits of state environmental legislation must benefit everyone -- not just the ditsy denizens of Capitola and Santa Cruz, who showed up in battalion strength to back the battery at January‘s CARB meeting. Cardenas and Firebaugh seem to have their doubts that everyone is getting equal attention from the CARB. Which is why he invited its members to Pacoima.

”We want them to know what we feel they’re there for,“ the assemblyman said. ”We‘re past due on [implementing] SB115,“ Cardenas said after the meeting. ”And I have nothing against the ZEV car itself. I’m just not sure how much they are going to do for places like Pacoima.“

I wonder if the air-board leadership realizes that it is now in trouble on two fronts. First, there is the GM suit. Wherein, should the matter go to court, the board will finally have to present some long-absent statistical proof that enough battery cars can be sold to make a real difference in the state‘s air quality. This is proof that its own staff has not yet been able to produce.

Then, there’s this lack of confidence among the increasingly powerful representatives of the state‘s minority communities that the CARB cares enough about polluted urban areas. Both Firebaugh and Cardenas raise the suspicion that the CARB may have swapped general principles for specific prejudices: to have so fallen in love with the electric-car ideal as to forget that the CARB’s ultimate mandate is to improve overall air quality, not just put ZEVs on the road.

I felt this tendency myself at that meeting back in January, when a GM spokesman proposed to trade a statewide diesel-school-bus emissions-cleanup program for the ZEV-car mandate. The entire board took immense offense, one member venting so much red-faced outrage that I expected him to declare, ”Sirrah, you are a poltroon!“ and challenge the poor GM rep to a duel. Just like one of those romantic Southern gentlemen of yore.

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