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California and the West

Jump in '98 Smog Alerts Dims Odds on Key Goal

Air quality: End to Stage 1 warnings by 2000 is in doubt after increase from one in '97 to 12. Worst pollution shifts away from populated areas.

October 05, 1998|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

With only a year to go, the Los Angeles Basin is lagging far behind official projections that the turn of the century will see the last of smog sieges so severe that people are warned to stay indoors.

The region ends its 1998 smog season this month with a disappointing performance--unable to rival last year's record-shattering accomplishment, yet not too far off the mark for previous years. On 12 days, smog reached concentrations so unhealthful that children, the elderly and other susceptible people in part of the basin were advised to avoid breathing the air outside. By contrast, there was only a single such full-scale alert last year and seven in 1996.

The air remains much cleaner than when the decade began; the area and the population suffering extreme smog has been shrinking, and the number of Stage 1 alerts has dropped dramatically.

Smoggy Summer

The worst smog in the region has been shifting east, away from the region's most populated areas. Ironically, those who wanted to breathe cleaner air this year should have spent the summer in the cities, not the mountains.

The hot spot for ozone, the most pervasive ingredient of smog, used to be in the San Gabriel Valley, around Glendora. Now, it has moved to Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains. Nine of the region's 12 alert days this year were confined to the sparsely populated mountain towns east of San Bernardino. The metropolitan area recorded only three alerts, all in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. In most of Los Angeles County and in Orange County, there were no alerts. Riverside County and San Bernardino County had one each.

This year's lackluster outcome is important for at least two reasons. It suggests that the South Coast Air Quality Management District has been overly optimistic, and casts new doubt on whether its projection of ending all alerts and most health advisories in 2000 is realistic.

Also, the 1998 smog season was average in terms of weather conditions conducive to smog. If average weather brought a dozen days of alerts this year, experts ask, what might happen in a year with truly bad smog weather?

By contrast, last year's excellent performance was the result of unusually favorable weather--El Nino stirred up cool breezes and overcast skies, both of which work against smog formation.

AQMD senior meteorologist Joseph Cassmassi predicts that the Southland "will be close" to finally eliminating smog alerts for all 14 million residents at the end of the century. But he said it could be a bit longer before all summers routinely pass that milestone.

"There is some optimism thrown in there, I'll be honest with you," Cassmassi said. "But at all stations, the levels have come down fairly significantly and very rapidly. If we do eliminate Stage 1 episodes by year 2000, it will definitely be a benchmark that was hard-fought."

Up in the Air

Others now see the target as unreachable by then. "One would question, based on the 1998 air quality, whether it's really going to happen," said David Jesson, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air specialist who monitors the AQMD.

Added Linda Waade of the environmental group Coalition for Clean Air: The AQMD "is looking through their rose-colored glasses again; 1998 is a wake-up call."

The AQMD's goal for 2000 is purely voluntary. But it is critical that the agency's projections, based on sophisticated computer modeling, remain on target because they guide efforts to clean the air. The AQMD must, under federal law, ensure that the region will meet national health standards in 2010. If the agency's projections are too far off, the war against smog, already costly and far-reaching, will have to be amplified.

An enormous challenge still faces the region. Despite a battle waged for half a century, the basin--Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties--continues its reign as the smog capital of the United States.

This summer, ozone levels peaked in the mountains east of San Bernardino at precisely twice the 0.12 parts per million that is deemed safe to breathe,

The AQMD predicted in its 1997 smog plan that in 2000, the maximum concentration of ozone in the region would be around 0.15 parts per million. While that would be above the standard for healthy air, it is well below the 0.20 threshold for a full-scale alert.

But that prediction now seems far off the mark, since there were 45 days this year on which at least one part of the region had ozone concentrations above 0.15.

In fact, 1998 marked the first year since 1988 that smog alerts in the Los Angeles Basin increased--new clean-air records had been set each year for 10 years.

Cloud's Silver Lining

It wasn't a bad season by all accounts, because full-scale smog alerts don't tell the whole story. There were eight fewer health advisories--when susceptible people are urged to avoid exertion--than in 1996, and surprisingly, there were six fewer days exceeding the 0.12 parts per million federal health standard than there were last year.

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