State Losing Ground in War on Dirty Air


California's war on air pollution is beginning to falter as smog-control efforts increasingly fall behind the state's never-ending growth.

From the Sierra Nevada to Ventura beaches, San Francisco Bay to the Salton Sea, some of the nation's most polluted regions are slipping in their commitment to clean air, according to air quality officials from around the state. The cost of delayed cleanup is prolonged damage to human lungs, spoiled forests and crops, and the pervasive pall of dirty air.

In the San Joaquin Valley, so little progress has been made recently that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to declare the 25,000-square-mile area a "severe" smog zone, a status shared by only 10 other U.S. regions.

Cities such as Bakersfield and Fresno are beginning to challenge the Los Angeles region--where air quality has shown steady improvement--and Houston for the nation's air pollution crown. Sequoia National Park, which is immediately downwind of the valley, has the worst smog of any national park; more days of unhealthy ozone were recorded there last year than in Los Angeles and New York City combined. The valley has the most lackluster record against air pollution of any California region.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Management District blames the Bay Area for much of its pollution, but the EPA says the smog increasingly is home-grown. Local air quality officials have blocked control measures adopted elsewhere, insisting that they meet a cost-effectiveness yardstick more restrictive than used in Los Angeles or San Francisco. The EPA directed the district last year to implement at least six rules regulating emissions from paints, solvents and oil tanks that had been set aside, but some have still not been approved.

To meet the standards, which are set at the levels required to prevent damage to human health, smog-forming emissions would have to be cut by an additional 300 tons daily--equivalent to removing nearly one-third of all the cars, factories and oil operations in the valley. Instead, the EPA is leaning toward putting off compliance until 2007, although officials acknowledge smog might not be tamed by then either.

"It doesn't look good. There's a lot that still needs to be done, and you wonder why a lot hasn't been done earlier," said John Ungvarsky, an environmental scientist at the EPA.

The Bay Area also has trouble.

After years of effort, the region in 1995 reached the health-based standard for ozone, the main component of smog. But pollution has resurged, and today it once again exceeds federal limits. Now, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is trying to regain the upper hand, but it won't be easy. It faces the daunting task of eliminating 246 tons of hydrocarbons daily over the next four years.

Environmentalists and the EPA said Bay Area smog fighters have not been tough enough on oil refineries, but local officials say greater reductions are needed from power plants and diesel generators as well as ports and airports, some of which are under federal jurisdiction.

Backsliding is also evident in dust clouds ranging from Palm Springs to Indio, where machinery from a construction boom grinds soil that the wind blows all over the Coachella Valley.

Windblown dust is the dominant source of a serious problem with particulate pollution in the desert region. Particulates can lodge deep in the lungs and have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, lung disease and premature death.

The region, which suffers some of the worst dust storms in the nation, had the problem licked in 1996 when recession slowed down the construction industry. But as the building boom revived with the economy, enforcement efforts failed to keep up, and pollution has returned. Today, the valley once again exceeds limits for microscopic wind-blown dust, said Bill Kelly, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"They didn't keep up the emphasis on dust controls they had in the past," Kelly said. "They need to redouble their efforts to get back into attainment" of smog standards.

Even in Southern California, which has had the best record in the country for smog reduction, high levels of carbon monoxide--a poison gas emitted principally from tailpipes--continue to pervade South-Central Los Angeles. The pollutant was supposed to have been eliminated last year, under provisions of the federal Clean Air Act. And although regional air pollution officials have succeeded in eliminating it elsewhere in the Los Angeles Basin, carbon monoxide in South-Central has remained a problem.

Meanwhile, a key program to cut emissions from 360 of the region's biggest industrial polluters has not worked.

The setbacks could tarnish California's reputation as a leader in the fight for clean air, environmental activists say.

As a result of the resurgent pollution, millions of residents will continue to breathe unhealthy air for many more years than Congress envisioned when it set cleanup deadlines for California under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.

"Things are slip-sliding away," said Sierra Club lobbyist V. John White. "We gave ourselves all these victory laps and cheered ourselves, and then we started losing resolve. We've stopped pushing."

The slowdown in smog improvement "bothers me," said Alan C. Lloyd, chairman of the state Air Resources Board. "We need to understand what is going on, what we are doing right, and what we are doing wrong."

That evaluation has begun as air quality officials develop comprehensive new cleanup plans for smoggy cities. To achieve smog-fighting goals, officials say, those plans will have to deal aggressively with diesel-powered engines, solvent-based paints, consumer products and machinery used at harbors and airports, which are among the largest and least controlled pollution sources. Drafts of the plans are expected to be completed this summer, followed by public hearings.

California continues to have a better record on smog cleanup than any other state, said Joseph M. Norbeck, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Technology at UC Riverside.

But smog cleanup is not getting any easier. Growth is overtaking it.

More cars, trucks, boats, businesses, chemicals and consumer products fill the air with emissions. The state's economy expanded by 9.2% last year, and although economic growth has slowed markedly this year, the state's population continues to increase. New car sales last year were up 11% statewide, adding 2 million vehicles--nearly half of them trucks and sport utility vehicles, which spew out substantially more pollution than standard passenger cars. A record 34 million people live in California, and each day they release 68.3 million pounds of pollutants into the sky, according to the Air Resources Board.

"The growth is starting to catch up with the gains we've made," said Jack Broadbent, administrator of air programs for the EPA's California office. "We're at a point in time where a lot of the attainment dates are approaching. If we're going to attain those deadlines, you have to put controls in now."

The state's electricity crisis is complicating matters. Throughout California, power plant emissions are surging as pollution controls are relaxed to prevent blackouts. When the lights threaten to go out, businesses switch on backup diesel generators, the dirtiest power source and a contributor to deteriorating air quality in the Bay Area.

"We need some leadership on this issue and we are not seeing it," said Larry Berg, a Calabasas air quality consultant and a former director for the South Coast Air Quality Management District and USC's Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics. "The historical memory about what's going on with air pollution and public health is not on the minds of people in Sacramento. They need to refocus."

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