Another generation of Southern Californians faces the likelihood of breathing unhealthful air under a new clean-air plan adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District last week. The action came at the midpoint of what district officials called the worst smog season in seven years, with 44 days so far this year exceeding the federal health standard for ozone, compared to 49 in all of 2002 and 36 in 2001.

With a 2010 deadline approaching and air quality beginning to deteriorate after a decade of progress, the AQMD’s plan outlines only enough specific measures to achieve 20 percent of the 559 tons a day of pollution reductions needed to meet the federal one-hour health standard for ozone. The other 80 percent of the reductions are to be made through undefined “long-term” measures to be carried out largely by the state Air Resources Board and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental and public-health advocates denounced the plan as the weakest since the mid-1980s. Business leaders applauded the new blueprint, which includes few new requirements for local industries, and AQMD officials blamed the state and federal governments for the recent increase in smog levels and called on them to do more to control pollution from trucks, ships, cars, aircraft, and other equipment that lies largely beyond the regional agency’s legal authority.

“There’s always a lot of finger-pointing on who’s responsible for what,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics and a member of the Sierra Club. “But everybody needs to pull an oar. It’s very clear that this board and agency could do more.”

In a last-minute change, AQMD officials agreed to study the feasibility of whether they could carry out some of the long-term measures, but mostly outlined a laundry list of additional steps needed from the federal and state governments. They include federal and state rules and funding to tighten smog checks for motorists, double the fuel-efficiency standards for automakers, and clean up the region’s burgeoning freight-shipping industries that use diesel trucks and equipment. “We need some sort of financial assistance unless we get regulations,” said Barry Wallerstein, the AQMD’s executive officer.

Throughout California, more than $100 million a year will be needed over the next 10 years to clean up diesel trucks and equipment, according to Catherine Witherspoon, executive director of the Air Resources Board. “All these things take money,” she said.

However, not much help is on the way. Last week in Washington, the U.S. Senate voted down a doubling by 2015 of the federal mileage standard for autos. In Sacramento, the state air board recently approved rules that will delay by 17 months the sale of cleaner diesel fuel in the Southland. After passing a budget, state lawmakers, facing pressure from the oil and shipping industries, flew out of town leaving bills on the table to provide new money to clean up air pollution.

In another nail in the clean-air coffin, the Environmental Protection Agency may not be able to approve the plan, because it assigns emissions-reduction responsibilities to the agency, a violation of federal policy, according to Jack Broadbent, air-division director in the federal agency’s San Francisco office. “We fully understand the federal government can do more,” said Broadbent, a former AQMD executive, who promised to advocate for more action at EPA headquarters in Washington. “I can’t say EPA will approve this plan.”

His remarks exasperated some of the AQMD board members. “We’re drowning in ozone, and there’s no significant relief in sight,” said Jane Carney, the state Senate’s appointee to the AQMD board.

In the end, the jousting over the new plan may not matter much, because the Bush administration is moving to eliminate the 2010 deadline for the region to meet the one-hour ozone standard. Instead, the agency has proposed replacing the one-hour standard with an eight-hour standard developed under President Clinton, which, although tighter, would not have to be met until 2021. In effect, the move would render the new plan moot, would call for another plan in two years, and would take the pressure off the region and other states to adopt more stringent clean-air rules. Afraid of losing transportation funds — a federal sanction EPA imposes under the Clean Air Act when areas do not meet pollution-reduction deadlines — the Southern California Association of Governments is backing the Bush administration’s proposal to extend the time for cleanup.

“The region simply cannot afford to have a plan that is not legally defensible,” said Mark Pisano, executive director of the association, the transportation-planning agency for the region.

At the end of the contentious hearing, nobody seemed happy with the new smog plan. “Unless we are given the power to deal with it individually, we’re going to be in a lot worse position than the public realizes,” said former Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, who was serving at his last AQMD board meeting.

The plan now moves to the state air board for approval at a late September hearing before being sent to the federal EPA.

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