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2002 Spike in Air Pollution Reverses Downward Trend

Officials downplay the one-year rise, partly blaming fires and heat. Others question current policy. Problem migrates to inland areas.

October 13, 2002|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

California has endured its worst air pollution season in several years, as inland valleys have been smothered in a pall of haze and ozone has spread to far-flung regions unaccustomed to smog.

The increase in pollution is a sharp reversal after years of improvements in air quality statewide and has renewed debate over whether California is on the right track in the fight for clean air.

Smog levels were up from Santa Clarita to Sacramento, driven by hot, dry, stagnant weather that prevailed statewide much of the summer and by forest fires that polluted the air over formerly smog-free places such as Death Valley National Park and the eastern Sierra Nevada.

In sharp contrast, coast-hugging urban communities from San Francisco to San Diego largely escaped the siege. Ozone pollution is rapidly becoming a thing of the past along the coastal plains as an east-west divide splits the state into zones of clean and polluted air.

Much of the city of Los Angeles and the southern part of Los Angeles County have been in that smog-free zone for several years. Smog-monitoring stations in downtown Los Angeles, Lynwood and West Los Angeles all recorded zero days so far this year in which ozone readings exceeded federal standards. Burbank has had one bad-air day. Reseda has had nine, according to data collected by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

But the AQMD's jurisdiction -- all of Orange County and parts of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- overall experienced 49 days when ozone in at least one part of the basin exceeded federal health-based standards, 36% more than last year. Air quality officials treat the entire area as a single entity because emissions generated in one place help cause smog downwind.

Readings that exceed the federal standards mean there was enough ozone in the air to cause headaches, nausea or shortness of breath for at least some people an average of one day in three during smog season so far.

Air is considered unhealthful if it contains more than 120 parts per billion of ozone in one hour. The smog season officially ends Oct. 31, but air quality officials do not expect the figures to change greatly in the final weeks of the month.

The worst air pollution in Southern California has been in the Santa Clarita Valley, which has suffered 32 days of unhealthful ozone. Other Southland smog hotspots this year have included Crestline and Redlands (23 each); Banning (14); Rubidoux and Glendora (12 each).

Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist for the AQMD, said southerly ocean breezes carried emissions north to Santa Clarita. Also, wildfires in early summer kicked up massive amounts of nitrate -- not from smoke, but from air pollution fallout that had accumulated on chaparral for years -- adding to local smog. The AQMD also moved an air pollution tracking station in Santa Clarita, which may account for some of the extra violations, he said.

"Smog has been very noticeable this year. It makes our life more difficult," said Rick Winsman, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Air quality officials caution against making too much of one year's smog levels. They emphasize how much smog depends on fickle weather conditions, and they instead rely on long-term trends to gauge progress. Measured by that yardstick, the progress toward clean air is indisputable.

A decade ago, weather conditions similar to those that occurred this summer would have produced nearly 150 unhealthful days, as well as a few dozen days of "very unhealthful" skies, when "air was so poor a healthy person would feel the effects just walking out the door," said an AQMD spokesman, Sam Atwood.

Days of bad ozone are down about 65% since 1992, the peak concentrations are much less severe, ozone is not massed over the urban core as it once was, and dreaded "first stage alerts," when air quality was very unhealthful for everybody, disappeared four years ago.

"Eighty percent of [California's] population lives within 10 miles of the coast. You have a great deal of the population in the South Coast area experiencing much cleaner air," said Jack Broadbent, administrator of air programs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's West Coast office.

Thanks to stringent regulations and innovative solutions by industry, Californians now drive the cleanest cars powered by the cleanest fuels in use anywhere in the world. They use some of the cleanest consumer products and work in jobs using some of the cleanest technology in the nation. More reductions are on the way too, as new regulations require super-clean cars and smoke-free buses and trucks.

"I don't think we're losing our way. We are on target, but you're going to see year-to-year fluctuations," said AQMD's chief, Barry Wallerstein.

Others say that, after years of impressive gains, California may be slipping.

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