Cleaning Up the Brown Cloud

PETROLEUM BYPRODUCTS:

DENVER NOW has the dubious distinction of having the worst air pollution problem in the country. This is not to say that other American cities are far behind. How Denver deals with its smog problem should therefore be of interest to other cities, since they too will soon find it impossible to continue to neglect their growing pollution problems.

The federal government has already implemented or proposed initiatives to reduce smog in American cities, going back as far as the Clean Air Act 17 years ago. In the mid-1970s, catalytic converters on automobiles became mandatory. The Environmental Protection Agency has further advocated the use of methanol-based gasoline consumption and vapor recovery systems on cars and filling station pumps by 1992.

Otherwise, the Environmental Protection Agency has all but washed its hands of the air pollution problem, threatening to cut off federal funding if state and local leaders cannot find their own way of reducing pollution to acceptable levels. The federal government can therefore not be counted on to solve the problem.

DENVER HAS tried a different approach, urging its citizens to modify their own driving habits. Denver drivers are encouraged to carpool and to leave their cars at home on days corresponding to the digits on their license plates.

This has, unfortunately, not been an effective solution. Most drivers do not carpool, and few are willing to give up the freedom their automobiles provide, even for a day. Such a sacrifice is especially impractical in a city as spread out as Denver, which has no mass rapid transit system and only a small fleet of buses.

Denver citizens have by default thrown the burden back to the legislators, on the state and local levels, and the resulting solutions have not been popular. Three years ago, Colorado instituted an automobile emissions inspection program for Denver and other cities along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Last year the emissions standards were tightened further. Many cars simply cannot pass these restrictions without time-consuming and often costly adjustments, and the inconvenience and expense thus make such a program a ripe target for disgruntled comments and community ire.

THE MOST controversial measure, however, has been the implementation of the oxygenated fuel program this winter. Oxygenated fuel, its proponents argue, is less destructive to the environment, emitting fewer hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Though the fuel is supposedly safe for "newer" cars, there is still some question as to just how "new" the cars must be, and just what make and model a car must be in order to avoid potential damage to its engine or carburetor from the new type of fuel. The program is scheduled only for the winter, when smog levels are highest, but its costs may extend far beyond if modifications and repairs become necessary.

There aren't many other alternatives. There is little personal incentive to carpool, and emissions controls can hardly become more stringent. Denver could build a mass rapid transit system, such as a light-rail system, and in fact Denver civic leaders have been talking for years about doing just that. Such a long term investment would likely be less expensive than paying the short term costs of automotive adjustments each year. But the money for such an investment would, of course, have to come from the taxpayers.

The ultimate responsibility for pollution control, therefore, rests with the taxpayers. They cannot, and should not, count on commands from an Olympianlike government to solve their pollution problems. Regulation of their driving habits or the emissions of their cars from above have been proven futile. Citizens themselves will have to decide how to solve the problem, and they will have to pay for the solution they choose. Denver residents are learning this difficult lesson now. Residents of other cities should be paying attention.