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
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. …