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ENVIRONMENT

Why We Have More Bad-Air Days

June 23, 2002|MARC B. HAEFELE | Marc B. Haefele is a reporter for the LA Weekly.

It was grim reading for the breathing. Eleven California counties are among the nation's 25 dirtiest for ozone pollution, according to the latest survey of the American Lung Assn. Just a few years ago, bad air was a local problem here--in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Now, says the association, California has got the worst five counties in the nation: San Bernardino, Kern, Fresno, Riverside, Tulare. Los Angeles is in eighth place, Merced County ninth and El Dorado 14th. Sacramento County, where the capital and most of the state's air resource bureaucracy are located, made it to No. 19 of the "Dirty 25" for the first time. If our elected officials and their public vassals can't keep their own air clean, what's the hope for the rest of us?

Big-city bad air is clearly spreading into small-town California. Tulare County, with about 374,000 residents, has worse air quality than L.A. County, with nearly 10 million. And if Los Angeles County, according to the report, has only slightly worse air than sparsely peopled Merced County (population of 205,000), what's going on?

Some blame the state's sprawling commuter population, with its increasingly hours-long drives to and from work spurred by an expanding population and a serious housing shortage. Or the state's huge, underregulated agribusiness.

But there might be other causes. And one could be that the Sacramento agency responsible for abating the state's pollution, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), hasn't done its best to halt the spread of bad air.

CARB has a glorious history in the annals of environmental improvement. As the gatekeeper of the nation's largest automobile market, it has worked in advance of the federal Environmental Protection Agency for nearly 35 years, compelling manufacturers to dramatically reduce their products' pollution. CARB was the first to demand catalytic converters and countless other refinements, often in the teeth of industry opposition, and usually got what it wanted.

On the other hand, CARB carpers complain that the agency has committed itself to the unrealistic panacea of mandating thousands of hard-to-sell battery-electric cars. As Consumers Union recently put it, "Not many people want a car with what amounts to the equivalent of a 3-gallon tank that takes eight hours to fill." Others have questioned whether such highly touted CARB programs as its fuel-cell partnership are advancing that pollution-free technology or simply hosting junior high science-class trips.

More important, some say, CARB has done less than it could have to reduce a key source of ever-spreading air pollution--diesel emissions. Now that a new passenger car gives off fewer emissions when operating than an inoperative 1982 model does sitting in a driveway, they say it's time to tackle the nitrous-oxide and black-smoke-belching motors that power most commercial transportation and agriculture. Diesels are blamed for some 70% of current automotive pollution. And recent UCLA and USC studies, as well as older CARB research, suggest that diesel emissions cause the most health problems, primarily afflicting people who live within a few hundred yards of freeways.

But CARB studies also indicate that every cubic meter of the state's air contains an average of 1.3 micrograms of the diesel particulates that pass through the body's natural filtration systems into human lungs and airways. In California's most polluted counties, according to the lung association, at least 11% of the population has diseases aggravated by such air pollution.

"There's been so much progress in cleaning up cars,'' said Gail Ruderman Feuer, director of the National Resource Defense Council's Southern California air quality program. "But there just hasn't been enough cleaning up of diesels."

Feuer's organization recently worked with the local South Coast Air Quality Management District on a program that funds the replacement of thousands of the area's diesel school buses with clean natural-gas-powered ones. She said CARB ought to be doing the same, encouraging more natural-gas-powered transit buses, as well as natural-gas-powered big-rig trucks.

Instead, Feuer said, the agency is dragging its feet with a two-path methodology that offers operators a choice between natural gas and a "clean diesel" product that many claim cannot be produced now or even by the time the EPA's new clean-diesel standards kick in. She cited an April study by CARB that found a natural-gas engine gave off more emissions than an "equivalent" conventional diesel. But the diesel used special fuel and had emissions-reduction equipment the gas engine didn't have, she said. CARB officials say they're redoing the study. Feuer suggested that CARB may be favoring the diesel industry because of political pressures.

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