Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California's dust bowl

Left in the Dust How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A. Karen Piper Palgrave Macmillan: 224 pp., $24.95

July 23, 2006|Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah | Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah is a writer in Los Angeles.

PARTICULATE matter 10, or PM-10, is dust. It is sometimes called "respirable particulate matter," indicating that it is fine enough to be inhaled. "You breathe this dust in, but you don't breathe it out," writes Karen Piper, in "Left in the Dust: How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A."

Piper is a native of Ridgecrest, Calif., the first city downwind of Owens Lake, a 110-square-mile dry lake covered in PM-10; she likens it to "a giant bowl of fresh talcum powder." As a child, she saw dust clouds that "hung in the air like fog" and days when "the sun disappeared and it was hard to breathe."

Like asbestos, PM-10 infiltrates lung tissue, causing and exacerbating respiratory illnesses and autoimmune reactions. PM-10 is also called fugitive dust, a name that implies it has outwitted human efforts to contain it.

Construction, industry, agriculture and cars' tailpipes all create, stir up or emit PM-10. Because of the significant adverse health and environmental effects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets air quality standards for acceptable levels of PM-10, and the state Health and Safety Code sets the laws governing its prevention and mitigation. Developers grading the landscape to make way for tract homes and industrial parks must have a water truck spraying down the dust behind every piece of equipment that scrapes at the earth. When the Santa Ana winds kick up, a man on the nightshift at Santa Anita Park circles and circles the dirt racetrack with a water truck.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 115 words Type of Material: Correction
Owens Lake dust: In the July 23 Book Review, a review of the book "Left in the Dust" said incorrectly that when L.A. Aqueduct water was diverted in 2001 to control dust, "for the first time since farmers dynamited the aqueduct in 1927, water flowed into the Owens Valley." The reference should have been to Owens Dry Lake: It was the first time since 1927 that water had been diverted into the lake, except for storm overflows. The channel is 233 miles long, not 223 as stated, and not all the land it traverses is owned by Los Angeles' water agency, as the review said. A majority of it is owned by the U.S. government.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 20, 2006 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 3 inches; 111 words Type of Material: Correction
Owens Lake dust: A July 23 review of the book "Left in the Dust" said incorrectly that when L.A. Aqueduct water was diverted in 2001 to control dust, "for the first time since farmers dynamited the aqueduct in 1927, water flowed into the Owens Valley." The reference should have been to Owens Dry Lake: It was the first time since 1927 that water had been diverted into the lake, except for storm overflows. The channel is 233 miles long, not 223 as stated, and not all the land it traverses is owned by Los Angeles' water agency, as the review said. A majority of it is owned by the U.S. government.

What settles dust is the weight of water. The Owens Lake dust once was covered in brine, populated by tule grass and salt shrimp and traversed by steamboats. When the Los Angeles Aqueduct began diverting the lake's water in 1913, arsenic, cadmium, nickel and other naturally occurring toxic metals were left concentrated in the dry dirt. The Sierra Nevada range that borders the valley acts as a funnel: Wind lifts the dust and carries it in ominous opaque clouds, south through the Owens Valley, through Piper's hometown, across the high desert and toward Los Angeles.

The dry Owens Lake is the largest source of PM-10 pollution in the United States, according to the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, the air quality district for three High Sierra counties. To see the dry lake for yourself, you could take Highway 395 north from Los Angeles County, along the eastern side of the Sierras. Or you could follow the 223-mile-long aqueduct, but that would be trespassing -- the land around it is owned by Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power.

At the top of the aqueduct, "a simple concrete barrier ... funnels the [Owens] river into the aqueduct channel." Without its source water, the lake went completely dry. When the DWP began pumping additional groundwater, lowering the water table below the roots of trees, the land went barren. Not until 1987 did the EPA mandate that the DWP clean up the resulting dust for air quality violations that were "twenty-six times the federal standards set by the Clean Air Act."

In an interview at DWP's Los Angeles headquarters, Piper introduces herself only as a professor from the University of Missouri. She doesn't tell the DWP executive that she "took an interest in Owens Lake because of eighteen years' worth of dust embedded in my lungs." She stifles her cough -- she has another bout of pneumonia -- and when the executive tells her, "The only thing worse than the DWP in the Owens Valley would be no DWP," she coaches herself to smile "the way a perfectly healthy woman should smile."

But science considers one woman with a cough to be an anecdote. Although the risks of particulate air pollution have been documented in the scientific literature, there are no epidemiological health studies and no statistics on how many Owens Valley residents have become ill or died because of the dust. After the U.S. Navy, whose pilots couldn't see to land their planes, and area residents grew more vocal, studies were done -- but on the feasibility of ameliorating the dust, not the dust's health effects. Even these studies, Piper writes, were the result of hard-fought state legislation requiring Los Angeles "to undertake reasonable measures

The city of Los Angeles' mitigation effort from 1987 to 1996 was to fund the Great Basin district to study the effectiveness of "planting saltgrass, spraying chemicals on the surface of the lake, layering it with tires, building fences to stop the sand, and tilling the surface of the lake." The district tried digging wells to cover it with ground water. District officials considered gravel blankets. When the district determined that the only feasible solution was to return water to Owens Lake, the DWP "cut off the salaries of the members of the Great Basin APCD."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|