LOS ANGELES -- At a high-traffic corner in Los Angeles, the mouthwatering smell of Tommy's famous chili burgers has wafted through the air for almost 50 years. But that familiar odor of burgers -- savory to some, unpleasant to others -- could soon be a thing of the past throughout the Los Angeles basin.
While fumes from burgers, steaks, chicken and other fried and broiled foods may be relished by gourmands and gluttons, they also are a major source of smog. From McDonald's and In-N-Out Burgers to Lawry's and Ruth's Chris Steak House, an estimated 6,000 restaurants would be forced to reduce smoke from charbroilers, griddles and deep-fat fryers under a proposal unveiled last week by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
The agency says area restaurants emit 33 tons of pollutants into the air daily -- as many hydrocarbons as oil refineries and nine times more soot particles than all the region's buses. Fat, as it decomposes, releases petroleum-based gases into the air, and when grease drops on open flames it emits smoky particulates that obstruct visibility and lodge in lungs.
"We don't have to give up our burgers. We just won't be choking on as much smoke," said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood. "Restaurants are a very significant source of emissions. This is not a tiny, insignificant source."
Under the AQMD proposal, restaurants in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties that cook more than 50 pounds of meat per day and 25 pounds of nonmeat would have to reduce emissions. That would encompass fast-food chains, large restaurants, small "mom and pop" operations, and coffee and doughnut shops. Residential kitchens, catering vehicles and charity operations would be exempt.
AQMD officials -- who had postponed the proposal for five years because of concerns from restaurant owners and technical gaps -- are bracing for the same type of jokes and public backlash they faced in 1990 when they targeted fumes from backyard barbecues.
A series of workshops to discuss the proposal begins today, while the air-quality board has scheduled a vote in November.
Restaurants representatives reacted Thursday with concern, saying that they would have trouble complying with the proposed deadlines and pollution limits and might have to increase prices.
Under the first phase of the proposal, existing restaurants would have three years to meet a limit of 2.25 pounds of hydrocarbons per day -- equivalent to cooking about 1,200 quarter-pound burgers -- and one pound of particulates, equal to about 500 quarter-pounders, said Peter Votlucka, an AQMD air quality engineer. New restaurants would have two years to comply.
In seven years, all restaurants would have to reduce their emissions to no more than a half-pound of hydrocarbons a day and 0.4 pounds of particulates.
To comply, many restaurants might turn to essentially the same smog-control technology installed on automobiles -- catalytic converters.
Five area restaurants, including one at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, already are experimenting with catalytic converters. Attached to a steel hood on top of a charcoal broiler, it turns cooking fumes into harmless water and carbon dioxide.
But Gerald Breitbart, business issues consultant for the California Restaurant Association, said installing the devices costs $5,000 to $10,000, and they may not be effective enough to meet the proposed limits.
AQMD officials believe their proposal would eliminate 60 percent of emissions from all the region's restaurants -- amounting to a reduction of almost 12 tons of hydrocarbons per day and 8 tons of particulates.