The summer smog season is under way in Southeast Los Angeles County and Long Beach, casting a brown haze over one of the most polluted areas in the nation.
The area's inland cities, including Pico Rivera, La Habra Heights, Montebello and Whittier, will be the hardest hit as the sun bakes the emissions from industry and automobiles into lung-damaging ozone, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
The AQMD has monitors in Long Beach, Pico Rivera, Whittier and Lynwood to track air quality. Given similar weather conditions, those monitors are expected to record about the same levels of air pollution as they recorded last year, officials said.
The ozone levels in the Pico Rivera area exceeded federal clean air standards on 43 days last year. Air in the Whittier area violated the federal ozone standard on 21 days.
But out of the haze comes some good news: air pollution has decreased throughout the Southeast and Long Beach areas over the past five years.
In 1986, the Pico Rivera area had 79 ozone violations and the Whittier area had 39. The Lynwood monitor recorded 16 violations in 1986 compared to just three last year. Long Beach had 10 violations in 1986 and none last year.
And ozone levels were so high in the Pico Rivera area in 1986 that 18 first-stage smog alerts were called. There were no ozone alerts in the Southeast and Long Beach areas last year. During a first-stage smog alert, air pollution officials recommend that all strenuous activity be curtailed and that people try to stay indoors.
The pollutant reduces lung capacity, aggravates respiratory illness, impedes the human immune system and damages trees and crops.
But the war against air pollution is costly and politically volatile. Progress has been slower than expected. Air quality officials hoped to meet federal clean-air standards throughout the South Coast Air Basin by 2010, but they now concede that is unlikely. The South Coast Air Basin includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
And they have little hope of being able to meet the more stringent state standards any time in the foreseeable future. Ozone is the biggest pollution problem in the basin. The other main pollutants are fine particulates, including road dust, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.
"In terms of ozone, we don't even know how to meet the state standards," AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly said.
So for now, residents living in the Southeast and Long Beach areas are at the mercy of the wind and other weather conditions that blow away local emissions or leave them hanging like smoke in a Las Vegas casino.
The Southeast and Long Beach areas have plenty of power plants, oil refineries and other pollution-producing industry along the coast and inland. One air quality official called it the industrial heartland of the Los Angeles basin.
Several of those plants have made the AQMD's lists of top-20 polluters in the South Coast Air Basin.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Haynes generating plant in Long Beach was the second biggest emitter of oxides of nitrogen--3,032 tons--in 1989, the last year for which statistics are available. Power plants, boilers and car engines emit oxides of nitrogen, a base component of smog.
Southern California Edison's Long Beach plant, just across the San Gabriel River channel from the Haynes plant, emitted 2,391 tons of oxides of nitrogen to rank fifth, while the Golden West Refinery in Santa Fe Springs was 18th with 694 tons.
The area was represented on the AQMD's other list of major polluters, those that emit reactive hydrocarbons. Reactive hydrocarbons, another base component of smog, are generated from burning fuels and are in the fumes of solvents and paints.
Douglas Aircraft Co. in Long Beach emitted 743 tons of reactive hydrocarbons to rank sixth in the basin, while Golden West Refinery was 11th with 481 tons.
Also contributing mightily to the smog problem are the hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks that motor along area streets and some of the busiest freeways in the world--the Santa Ana, San Gabriel River, Artesia, Long Beach and Harbor freeways.
To make matters worse, a strong inversion layer often compresses area emissions near ground level. The summer smog season, with its warm and stagnant air, runs from May through October.
Coastal breezes save parts of Long Beach and the Southeast from choking on their exhaust pipes during much of the summer smog season. The breezes blow emissions northeast from the heavily industrial Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor areas through the Lakewood and Lynwood areas.
The pollution crosses Paramount and Downey and moves into the Pico Rivera and Whittier areas, according to AQMD meteorologist Joseph C. Cassmassi. Much of the pollution makes its way past the Whittier foothills and into the San Gabriel Valley.
That leaves residents in the Pico Rivera and Whittier areas gagging on imported smog, especially ozone, during the summer months.