Blueprint for Cleaner Skies under Fire Two New Lawsuits Test Clinton-Backed Approach to Fighting Smog in America

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When the nation's first program of pollution trading was launched here five years ago, proponents from Los Angeles to Washington proclaimed the idea (a.k.a. "smog marketing") the most ambitious, free-market experiment of its kind. It just might be, they said, the most cost-effective way for industries to take Windex to the nation's dirtiest skies.

Now, with several states following the blueprint, and the Clinton administration promoting similar practices worldwide, a first-of-its-kind lawsuit here is bringing the controversial theory into question.

With hundreds of local residents complaining of chronic maladies, two California-based advocacy groups are suing five oil companies for not cleaning up emissions at area refineries. The environmentalists have also joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to file a federal civil rights complaint. The groups allege that emission-trading initiatives subject specific minority communities to disprop- ortionately high levels of airborne toxins. "This could certainly put the brakes on an experimental practice that not only the US but several foreign countries have been rushing into," says Larry Berg. Mr. Berg, founding director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, was the lone dissenting board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) when the pollution-trading program was approved in 1992. "Win or lose, the lawsuit will force an imperative nationwide public debate that should have ensued before the idea became public policy in the first place," he says. The idea behind pollution trading is to give each business a certain number of pollution "credits." A business can pollute until it uses all its credits, but if it wants to continue polluting, it must buy credits from other firms or earn credits by reducing pollution in other ways. The five oil companies named in Wednesday's lawsuit - Chevron Corp., Unocal Corp., Tosco Corp., Ultramar Corp., and GATX Corp. - earned credits by buying and scrapping old, high-polluting cars. The credits allowed them to forgo emission controls on their tankers that load and unload fuel in San Pedro and El Segundo. But such emissions from a single tanker can exceed 20 tons and include dangerous materials, says Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the key complainant in the case. Denny Larson, a ranking staff member for CBE, notes that the suit was filed only after four years of repeated attempts to get the companies to alter their practices. Now, CBE wants the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to scrap the current pollution-trading program in the entire Los Angeles region. …