The proliferation of pollution sources and regional growth as well as setbacks in the development of key smog control technologies are threatening to undo hard-won clean-air gains in the Los Angeles area.
A bout of unusually hot, stagnant weather brought the issue into sharp focus late last week when the first Stage 1 smog alert since 1998 was declared. However, there have been signs of trouble for the last few years. Although days of unhealthful ozone have fallen about 70% since 1976, that trend has begun to reverse.
“I’m amazed at how we are getting to the end of technology to reduce emissions,” said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency charged with controlling smog from businesses in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “It takes more work now to get the same progress. It’s going to be a difficult task and we do not have a margin of error. We need to redouble our efforts and strengthen our programs.”
Only a few years ago, California proclaimed that Houston had overtaken Los Angeles as the nation’s smog capital. But while officials boasted of their success, some experts were pessimistic.
Arthur Winer, professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA school of public health, forecast in a report several years ago that clean-air progress in the Los Angeles region would stall and begin to reverse about this time.
“I was concerned about it. If you look at the way the emissions control program has played out, we had really dramatic reductions in emissions in the light-duty motor vehicle fleet. We had the tremendous advance of the catalytic converters, the on-board computers, reformulation of gasoline in the mid-1980s to mid-'90s. They were terrific gains and were able to overcome the growth in vehicles and traffic over the past few decades. But my concern is that I couldn’t see on the horizon any further approaches that would yield dramatic gains.”
In 1983, there were 152 days in which ozone reached unhealthful levels in the Los Angeles Basin. That number dropped to about 40 per year between 1998 and 2001. But it tipped up to 49 days last year and so far this year there have been 36 days. That is double the number of days at this time last year. And experts note that we haven’t reached what is typically the worst period for ozone: August and early September. Ozone, the main component of smog, is a toxic, colorless gas that can scar lung tissue, cause headaches and nausea, aggravate asthma and lead to long-term loss of lung function.
At the root of the problem, experts argue, are too many people driving too many cars, especially trucks and sport utility vehicles that are subject to more lenient fuel efficiency standards than passenger cars. Vehicles are responsible for 70% of the Los Angeles-area air pollutants. Big trucks and SUVs now are responsible for half the new car sales in California.
Alternative fuels and zero-emission cars have not materialized nearly as quickly as air quality officials once anticipated.
In addition, local air quality regulators say there are too few controls on too many big sources of pollution, including airports, ports and ships.
Air quality officials are confronting new data that show they underestimated the enormity of the cleanup task. Studies prepared by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the state Air Resources Board revealed earlier this year far more vehicle tailpipe emissions than air quality officials realized. They now say emissions of two key smog-forming pollutants must be cut in half to meet the federally mandated cleanup deadline of 2010, by which time the region should experience zero days of unhealthful ozone. Air quality officials all but concede that goal will be impossible to attain.
Nearly every day this summer ozone levels have soared to heights not seen in years across inland valleys and mountains. The surge peaked last week when a smog alert was declared in the Lake Arrowhead area as ozone reached a concentration almost double the safe level.
Kids at the Boys and Girls Club of the Mountain Communities in Crestline were kept out of the water at Lake Gregory and kept indoors playing games for hours Thursday after worried leaders noticed that children were having difficulty breathing and seemed exhausted.
A few hundred yards down the lakeshore, a small tan shack and a shiny, round metal contraption next to it sat tucked under tall pines -- the smog monitoring station in the bucolic mountain town, near where the smog alert was declared last week.
“People expect to come up to a pristine, clean, cool, green mountain paradise,” said Ed Eddingfield, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club. “It is, but it’s paradise with smog right now.”
Ozone levels remained high across the L.A. Basin on Monday, though not high enough to trigger another smog alert.
Environmentalists charge that air quality officials backed off after posting tremendous successes during the 1990s.
“This is outrageous. We are sliding back, unfortunately. It has to do a lot with the agencies on all levels not being as aggressive as they can be, especially the state Air Resources Board and the EPA,” said Todd Campbell, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.
Earlier this year, Congress decided against raising the fuel efficiency standard for passenger vehicles, including SUVs, in response to automakers’ claims that vehicle safety would be compromised and to union worries about auto workers’ job security.
To get bigger cuts in tailpipe emissions, California regulators had hoped that by now there would be widespread use of alternative-fuel vehicles, including cars that run on natural gas as well as electric vehicles and hybrid cars that are powered by both electricity and gasoline.
Some of those vehicles were not embraced by consumers and others have been much slower coming off the assembly line than originally anticipated.
The state Air Resources Board announced several years ago that it would begin requiring existing big diesel vehicles to install pollution-control devices similar to cars, but to date the board has not adopted a single rule. The board is scheduled to consider its first diesel retrofit rule, a measure for trash-hauling trucks, later this month.
“They were supposed to have done this years ago, but there’s just strong political pressure against this,” Campbell said.
Meanwhile, some of the region’s major polluters, including the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and the region’s five major airports, have largely escaped stringent controls. At the harbor alone, emissions from ships produce the smog equivalent of nearly 1 million cars daily.
The Bush administration recently decided not to seek stringent emission controls for big ships, sought by air quality officials along the California coast. An effort by the Air Quality Management District to assess fines for use of onshore diesel equipment that polluted was recently defeated in the Legislature.
State regulators recently approved a plan to cut emissions from airport ground equipment by two-thirds, but Los Angeles air quality officials say the measure does not go far enough.
Growth patterns in the suburbs, too, are causing smog problems. Over the last few years, the worst of the ozone is occurring far from urban areas in the San Bernardino Mountains and Santa Clarita Valley. Air quality officials believe that, as suburbs become denser in such places as Valencia, West Covina and Rancho Cucamonga, more smog sources -- including businesses, homes and cars -- are created.
Chemicals that have been reformulated to reduce their smog-forming capabilities still form ozone, albeit more slowly and farther downwind from the sources. Those chemicals are used widely in products ranging from paint to solvents to cleansers. Household sources alone release 108 tons of smog-forming emissions daily and are the second-leading source of such emissions in the basin.
Next month, air quality officials will hold a public hearing in Diamond Bar on a new comprehensive smog cleanup plan for the region. But business leaders, environmentalists and even some air quality officials acknowledge that the plan will fall short of achieving healthful air by the end of the decade.
“It’s not aggressive enough,” said Bob Wyman, an attorney for the Regulatory Flexibility Group, which represents, Northrop Grumann, Chevron, Texaco, Reliant Energy, Irvine Co. and Toyota, among others. “Were running out of time. It’s time for the agencies to start thinking outside the box. We need to be more creative and use a different toolbox.”
Times staff writer Janet Wilson contributed to this report.