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Smog Fouls Air While Oily Odor Shuts Down Beach

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County’s smog season is in full, eye-watering swing. Air-quality officials on Monday issued smog alerts for the third straight day over wide areas of North County.

Making matters more unbearable, temperatures hit record levels, though a break in the late-spring heat wave is expected by today.

Those who tried to escape Monday’s heat at Bolsa Chica State Beach were ordered off the sand or turned away for more than six hours as officials investigated a pungent, oily smell that prompted a 2 1/2-mile closure of shoreline. The beach was reopened about 6 p.m. after U.S. Coast Guard officials concluded that 20 to 40 gallons of diesel fuel had spilled or been dumped from a passing pleasure boat or commercial fishing vessel.

The light sheen of oil never came ashore, but the noxious odor caused a handful of health problems among the 1,000 beach-goers who were on the sand when the beach was closed about noon.

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“It was really obnoxious this morning. I had a headache. I still do,” lifeguard Ron Hoffman said.

Red eyes and dry throats were common symptoms among North County residents Monday as the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a first-stage smog alert for the La Habra area. But a potent mixture of hot air and high concentrations of pollutants produced a thick layer of smog that turned skies milky brown from Yorba Linda to Whittier.

“It looks very yucky,” said Roland Elder, the director of Fullerton Municipal Airport, where visibility was reduced to three miles.

And more unhealthful air for inland communities is predicted today, though temperatures should only reach the mid 80s as cooler ocean air returns, said Steve Burback, a meteorologist for WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts for The Times.

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The smoggy skies Monday were a troubling reminder that the smog season, a period that runs roughly from May 1 to Oct. 31, has returned.

About 2 p.m., air-quality officials declared a first-stage smog alert that lasted more than two hours in the La Habra area. Similar first-stage alerts--issued when the concentration of air pollutants reaches a level where a potential health hazard exists--also were issued for eastern San Gabriel Valley, Upland, Pomona, Riverside, San Bernardino, Redlands and Crestline.

Under a first-stage alert, schools are advised to curtail outside activity, and elderly people are advised to stay indoors as a precaution. A pair of first-stage alerts were issued in the La Habra area on Saturday and Sunday as well.

On Monday the air was still crummy.

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“At noon, it was horrible; It was all brown,” said Sue Long, attendance coordinator for the La Habra City School District, where students had already left for home by the time news of the first-stage alert reached the schools. “But it’s no worse than we’ve had before.”

Smog is a photochemical reaction between hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides released from motor vehicles and industrial sources. When the two pollutants are cooked by the sun’s rays, they create smog, and in the summer months--when the days are longer, the temperatures warmer and the air more stagnant--the problem is especially bad.

“The heat acts as an inversion layer, which acts as a lid on the smog,” said Sylvia Haskell, an AQMD spokeswoman. “It doesn’t dissipate rapidly because the inversion layer keeps it locked in. . . . The hot air is keeping the cool air from rising.”

The cooling trend that is expected today arrived on the coast Monday, with highs only reaching the upper 60s in many beach areas. But inland, the mercury soared again, reaching 94 degrees in Anaheim. This shattered the county’s record for June 4 of 89 degrees, set in Santa Ana back in 1957. Elsewhere Monday, it was 89 in Santa Ana and 87 in San Juan Capistrano.

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Officials say it is too early to say whether this is going to be a bad smog year.

“It’s really too early in the year to say,” said Bill Kelly, an AQMD spokesman. “Emissions have come down in recent years, and the weather is really a much more important factor in terms of variation.”

At Bolsa Chica State Beach, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered for several hours over the shoreline searching for some clue to the origin of the fuel spill that closed the beach. At 4 p.m., the search was called off.

“We categorize it as a mystery,” Coast Guard Capt. James C. Card said. “We tried to find the source, and we couldn’t. We don’t have anyplace else to look. . . . Whatever little oil we saw, the natural surf action and the sun will take care of.”

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Correspondent Michele Nicolosi contributed to this story.


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