LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The air in California may be getting cleaner this month, thanks to a new law regulating fumes at the state's gas stations. But fresh air is not cheap. In fact, many gas stations say the expensive new gear they are being forced to install is going to put them out of business. And it's a problem that many gas stations across the country may eventually face.
From member station KQED in San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.
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AMY STANDEN: Dennis DeCota was a senior in high school when he started pumping gas at this Union 76 station in San Anselmo, a wealthy suburb north of San Francisco. Today he's a solidly built father of three, the head of the California Service Station Association, and he owns the place.
Mr. DENNIS DECOTA (California Service Station Association): Most of the stations, whether they're branded or not, are small independent business people like myself. We don't look it because we have that corporate image, you know. And there's a lot of us out there like that. It's brought back a good living for me.
STANDEN: Just to be clear, it's not gasoline that put DeCota's kids through college, it's candy and hot dogs. The profit margin on gasoline is so thin, says DeCota, it's almost not worth selling. Really? Just an elaborate excuse to get people inside the station's convenience store. But people aren't buying candy bars like they used to. Sales are down 20 percent from last year, he says, not that you'd know it from the six shiny new gas pumps out front.
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Mr. DECOTA: Well, these are all new. These are all brand new.
STANDEN: DeCota says he spent $140,000 on the new pumps and other gear, most of it to comply with a new state law that took effect at the beginning of this month. California is the first state in the country to mandate this new equipment: state of the art nozzles and vapor recovery tanks. The new gear cuts back on the fumes that escape when you pump gas. Those fumes can lead to ozone, a greenhouse gas that also aggravates respiratory problems like asthma.
If every gas station in California installs the new gear, state officials say it'll be like taking almost half a million cars off the road. But so far only about half have made the change. Hundreds more gas stations are expected to simply close up shop because they can't afford the retrofit.
Mr. DECOTA: Believe it or not, in this little town of 13,000 people, we used to have seven service stations. Today we have three. And we'll probably end up, after April, maybe with only two.
STANDEN: DeCota says these new rules are just part of a larger trend - tougher and tougher environmental laws forcing gas stations out of business. And it's not just San Anselmo or even California.
Mr. DECOTA: And this is repeated throughout the United States. Hundred thousand stations have closed across the U.S. in the last 30 years.
STANDEN: That number is hard to confirm. But it is true that where California goes in environmental regulations, the rest of the nation tends to follow. For instance, in 1984, the state required every gas station to replace its underground storage tank with a double-walled version to prevent gasoline from seeping into the groundwater, to the tune of $200,000 per station. Today, more than half the states in the country also have this law. And each time another state adopts it, gas stations are forced to close.
Mr. DECOTA: You know, so the choice goes away. When choice goes away, you pay a higher price.
STANDEN: That's why some California legislators are calling for the state to delay the new rules. Here's Republican State Senator Dave Cox.
State Senator DAVE COX (Republican, California): I'm just as much concerned about clean air as anyone else. But no one could have predicted that we would've had this kind of economy. No one could have predicted that we were in this recession. And so it just makes some common sense to recognize that government needs to have some flexibility.
STANDEN: And so it's a standoff. Cox, along with Governor Schwarzenegger and other legislators, want to give gas stations a reprieve. But state regulators are resisting. They say it's hard to use the recession as an excuse when stations have had nine years to get ready for the new law. And anyway, the regulators argue, don't the benefits of clean air far outweigh the price?
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STANDEN: Of course, it's not gas stations that will ultimately foot the bill. Dennis DeCota started applying for the loans to upgrade his station last year, before there was a credit crunch. He just hopes he can sell enough gas to make it worth it.
Mr. DECOTA: When it comes down to the bottom line, the consumer pays for this, and that's how it gets paid for.
STANDEN: By the state's calculations, gas stations will rise about one cent per gallon to pay for that fresher safer air at the pump, making some of the most expensive gasoline in the country even pricier.
For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen.
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