Bay Area Air Quality Deteriorating, EPA Says 

Local agencies have so far failed to produce an acceptable smog reduction plan

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Environmentalists joined the effort. While Drury's group focused on ways to reduce factory emissions, the Sierra Club concentrated on the other half of ozone-producing emissions: those from motor vehicles. "For years and years we've been depending on tighter [state] emissions standards to take care of that, and they haven't done it," says Sierra Club transportation chief John Holtzclaw. "We suggested discouraging motor vehicle use by encouraging smart growth and mixed-use developments. Our society subsidizes driving substantially, with things like free parking at work. We recommended programs like a parking cash-out, where employers pay employees for not driving, so the company could use that land for other uses."

But the 1999 plan did little to incorporate the suggestions of environmentalists, nor did it explain why the changes weren't included. "If there's something someone suggests and they're not applying it, they need to analyze why," says Deborah Jordan, associate director of the EPA's local air division. That their suggestions were ignored must seem especially galling to environmentalists now that it's become clear that the 1999 plan did not clean up the air. When a group called Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund brought suit, pointing out that the EPA had missed its deadline to respond to the plan, the EPA responded by announcing that it was likely to disapprove the document. "The plan has been in effect for a year and a half, and we've had a half-dozen violations and missed an attainment deadline," says Earthjustice lead attorney Deborah Reames. "This suit was just to compel the EPA to act."

The three agencies aren't likely to challenge the EPA's disapproval; they're already working on revisions that will be ready in draft form by early May. But officials argue that there was little they could have done better back in 1999--and some of those limitations are still in place. "Our analytical tools for estimating how much we need to reduce emissions are not very sophisticated," explains BAAQMD Planning and Transportation Manager Jean Roggenkamp. Plus, she adds, "planning is not a static process." This means that revisions to the Ozone Attainment Plan will need to be reevaluated in 2003, the year when data from an important central California ozone study will be available. "We'll be able to do a photochemical model to cook the emissions and see where they blow and what the concentrations are," she says. "Do we contribute to Sacramento's air pollution? How much interplay is there among the regions?"

Roggenkamp also points out that some environmentalists' suggestions are outside her agency's jurisdiction--for example, she says, "It used to be that we had a regulation that said employers had to encourage employees not to drive alone to work, but a state law got passed that said we couldn't do that anymore." MTC's Air Quality Planner David Tannehill also defends the 1999 plan by pointing out that the hot weather that leads to smog is hard to predict.

Once the EPA's new standards are in place, we'll have a harder time. Instead of allowing .12 parts per million average concentration of ozone measured in one-hour stretches, the new standards will limit concentrations to .08 parts per million, measured in eight-hour stretches. "Based on historical data, we would be exceeding the eight-hour standard a few more times a year," says Earthjustice research associate Stanley Yung. For now, no one is trying to meet the new standards, and the EPA will not require the new plan to take them into account.

Another potential change that won't be incorporated in the new plan has to do with the state's emissions-reduction plan. The California Air Resources Board sets low-emissions mandates, requiring automakers to balance the number of gas-guzzling SUVs they sell with at least a handful of more efficient vehicles such as hybrid gas-electric cars. But this program has been consistently reduced over the past decade under pressure from auto makers. Now General Motors has sued the Air Board, protesting that it can't produce the reduced number of zero-emissions vehicles--4,650 by 2003--called for in the plan. If this pressure succeeds in further weakening the mandate, the numbers used by planners to model expected emissions reductions could be off. "There's a lot of uncertainty about those numbers, so we should have more emission reductions built in," says Yung. "These automobile emission reductions models have a long history of not turning out as hopefully as we think."


And then there's the energy crisis. Environmentalists warn that power plants are a source of smog-producing chemicals, and adding new plants could worsen the situation. On the other hand, new plants often use improved technology that is substantially cleaner than the old; even more importantly, new plants could help prevent the need for backup diesel generators that click on to keep hospitals and other emergency services running. "When we go to diesel generators, we're talking about dirt," says the Sierra Club's Holtzclaw. "Insofar as new power plants could reduce the need to use the back-ups, we support them." And Earthjustice's Yung adds, "The days we're most likely to exceed ozone standards are also the hottest--and that's when we'll run into power outages and have to use diesel." On the other hand, smaller "peaker plants" are now being approved, and these have lower environmental standards to meet; three have been proposed for the Contra Costa hills, with a larger, non-peaker plant also in the works in Hayward. "It's not smart to put these plants in a place that is already failing to attain federal air standards," says Drury.

Environmentalists increasingly are turning to the courts. Another suit against MTC has been filed by Earthjustice, arguing that the agency has failed to increase transit ridership by the fifteen percent promised in 1982. And BAAQMD is under fire from another group for allegedly allowing a backlog of 1,275 emissions citations against oil refineries to build up. "The agencies charged with protecting public health are dropping the ball," Yung says. "It's disturbing that it takes litigation to get them to do their job."

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