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Southland Smog Levels Are Lowest in 4 Decades : Pollution: O.C. records no stage-one alerts for second time in past 3 years. Region's air is still nation's dirtiest.

October 21, 1995|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

This year's smog season has ended as the best in four decades for Southern California, an encouraging note as officials struggle to decide how best to fight the last crucial battles in the campaign for clean air.

Although the region's smog has steadily improved over the last 20 years, especially in the 1990s, this year stands out as exemplary in numerous ways, according to data released Friday.

Just 13 stage-one alerts for ozone, the Southland's predominant pollutant, were reported by the South Coast Air Quality Management District during the unofficial smog season that ended this month. That compares with 23 last year and 83 a decade ago. Alerts--which signal that air is so unhealthful that everyone is warned to avoid prolonged exposure outdoors--declined this year by 43%.

Orange County, for the second time this decade, recorded no stage-one alerts.

Just as notably, the peak amount of ozone polluting the region's air dropped to the lowest level in decades, and the number of health advisories and violations of a key federal standard declined substantially.

Despite the good signs, smog officials repeated their normal refrain that we have come a long way but have far to go. The four-county Los Angeles Basin, and the eastern San Gabriel Valley in particular, retained its long-held claim to the nation's worst air pollution. No other metropolitan region even came close.

"It's a huge improvement, it really is, and it's encouraging that all the data shows we're still going in the right direction," said AQMD senior meteorologist Joe Cassmassi. "But when you flip back to looking at how many times we've violated the health standard, it still makes this the dirtiest community in the nation."

Ozone pollution was still serious enough to violate federal health standards on 91 days--an average of nearly once every three days. The year's highest concentration, measured in the Glendora area, was the lowest peak level on the region's books, but was double the amount deemed safe under the federal health standard.

Medical officials say that during such violations people with respiratory or cardiac problems face serious health risks.

"We applaud the progress," said Linda Waade, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air, a Santa Monica-based environmental group. "But we can't forget we're only halfway there."

In Orange County, the northern area historically has registered the most annual first-stage alerts--as many as 24 in 1978 and 21 a year later. But only two such alerts were reported there last year, and none this year.

Across Orange County, the number of annual alerts has been steadily dropping, AQMD records show.

"Your air there is much cleaner than in much of the area," said AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly. "You basically see that reflected in the numbers."

The county this year had one health advisory in the northern part, around La Habra.

AQMD officials believe Orange County will rarely suffer pollution severe enough to trigger full-scale alerts from now on, although it will continue to violate the health standard fairly often.

The county remains under strict pollution controls because its emissions, especially from cars, are one of the main reasons that nearby Riverside and San Bernardino counties continue to suffer foul air.

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AQMD meteorologists say reduced emissions from vehicles and industry, not favorable weather, explain this year's improvement.

According to their calculations, if the same weather conditions of this past June through August had occurred when emissions were as high as in 1982, the Southland would have suffered about 80 smog alerts.

The pollutants that form ozone have dropped 25% to 30% since the mid-1980s due to new pollution controls on vehicles and industry as well as the economic recession.

This summer's weather conditions were fairly typical, with warm temperatures and inversions that brought some smog bouts in late June, July, August and early September. Ozone, a potent invisible gas, is formed when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides react on sunny days when the air is still and pollutants are held close to the ground by a strong inversion layer.

Ironically, Southern California suffered a siege of poor air on Thursday and Friday, although a different pollutant, particulates, is to blame for the thick film of murky air.

During the last two days, health alert levels were reached for particulates, the microscopic grains of vehicle pollution and dust that turn skies gray and block visibility. Health officials believe the small particles lodge in lungs and contribute to sometimes fatal respiratory health problems. A persistent inversion and a wind pattern circulating moist air have exacerbated the particulates this week.

For the region's most notorious pollutant, ozone, Cassmassi predicts that stage-one alerts will finally vanish here around the turn of the century. The AQMD and state Air Resources Board a year ago adopted a plan containing dozens of proposed rules designed to achieve the health standard by 2010.

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