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California and the West

Bay Area Becomes Like the Rest--Air Is Declared Unsafe to Breathe

June 26, 1998|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

The San Francisco Bay Area on Thursday was declared an official smog area with air unsafe to breathe--putting it in the same category as nearly every metropolitan area in the country.

The Bay Area had been one of the few metropolitan areas in the country to be able to claim its air was full compliance with federal standards.

But newer data shows that the Bay Area is a "non-attainment area" for ozone, the lung-damaging gas that is the main ingredient of urban smog, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced.

EPA officials said their decision was based on smog readings from the summers of 1995 through 1997. The EPA gave the area a clean-air designation in 1995, but uncommonly sunny skies and stagnant air conditions, as well as a revived economy that increased emissions, combined to create smoggy summers in 1995 and 1996.

In those two summers, the area recorded 43 days when the federal health standard was exceeded. In 1996, it ranked sixth worst in the nation for ozone. (The Los Angeles Basin, as usual, was first.)

The Los Angeles Basin has the nation's worst smog. The Bay Area's problem has been nowhere near as severe. The eastern part of the area, however, has flirted with unhealthful air for the past few years.

"It's a wake-up call for the Bay Area," said Felicia Marcus, the EPA's regional administrator in San Francisco. "After all, they're the Bay Area--they are supposed to be the most environmentally sensitive. The issue is people there are breathing bad air."

Because of the new ruling, the Bay Area must now follow strict Clean Air Act rules and develop a strategy for meeting federal health standards by 2000. It is an elaborate, intense process that the Los Angeles Basin has been struggling with for years.

Gov. Pete Wilson and Bay Area officials had strongly urged the EPA to keep the area off the list because pollution there is improving.

California Air Resources Board Chairman John Dunlap called Thursday's decision "another exercise in contradictions by the federal government."

He said President Clinton announced last summer that common sense should prevail when implementing new smog standards, yet the Bay Area decision "is just the opposite." Dunlap called it a "distraction from the real [smog control] work already in process."

Last year, there were no violations in the Bay Area because of the El Nino conditions that kept air throughout much of California cleaner than usual.

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