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Residents speak of smog with passion

As it considers updating ozone standards, the EPA receives a California-style response at a hearing in Los Angeles.

August 31, 2007|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Federal air pollution regulators got a sample of Los Angeles on Thursday -- not just of its bad air, but of its unique citizenry, who testified as only Californians could about smog and its devastating health consequences.

Under court order to update ozone public health standards for the first time in a decade, Stephen L. Johnson, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, has proposed tightening them slightly in response to mounting evidence of health risks. But he is also accepting comment on whether standards should be left at their current levels.

Johnson's own science advisory panel, children's health experts and a long list of medical, scientific and environmental groups have recommended far tougher standards, which they say would save lives and reduce staggering health costs. But industry representatives and some policy groups say that implementing tighter regulations would cost billions and that there is not strong enough scientific evidence for changing current allowable emissions.

At an EPA field hearing in downtown Los Angeles, ordinary citizens got their turn, speaking vividly about waking up choking from asthma attacks, or how dreams of making it big in the big city have been crushed by failing health and ever-present, pollution-producing traffic. And some offered a bit of California dreaming by way of a solution.

"I wish you all love, and peace, and light and unity," said 21-year-old Ciera Morales of North Hollywood as she wept. Morales said she has suffered from asthma and bronchitis since childhood. "I have faith you will do the right thing," she said.

Others were not so sure, taking the EPA to task for even considering industry requests to hold off on tougher ozone regulations. Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes swirl in the hot sun.

Greater Los Angeles and the Central Valley have the nation's worst ozone smog. Several residents of the Central Valley also spoke passionately about the health effects of air pollution in their farm fields and towns.

"We are getting sprayed like spiders," said Socorro Gaeta of Fresno, of pesticides sprayed on fields that can contribute to smog. "What you don't realize is these bugs are picking your fruits and vegetables, but our children cannot play sports. My son wants to play sports, but he can't because he passes out."

Lydia Wegman, who directs the EPA's health and environmental impacts division and who chaired Thursday's panel, said of the speakers: "There definitely is a California flavor. Just the style; people here are more relaxed and open."

But she and two fellow EPA managers on the panel also said the local residents who spoke of air pollution and its effects knew what they were talking about. "The fact is that people here -- their presentations are so much more sophisticated, so much more knowledgeable," said Matt Haber of the EPA's San Francisco regional office.

Local residents were tucked among scientists, environmentalists and industry representatives.

"We believe it is inappropriate for U.S. EPA to change the current ozone standard. . . . The current ozone standard is working. Based on EPA estimates. . . the national average for ozone levels has decreased by 21%," said Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn., based in Sacramento, who said costs to implement the proposed standard could be as high as $22 billion. "Questions about the science used to justify lowering of the ozone standard suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency may be proposing regulations that could harm the economy without clearly demonstrated environmental or public health benefits."

But Linda Weiner, director of air advocacy for the American Lung Assn. of California, disagreed, saying: "The human toll from air pollution is huge in terms of illness, emergency room visits, asthma attacks and even premature death.. . . Total benefits of EPA's air pollution regulations outweigh the costs by as much as 40 to 1."

She urged the EPA, rather than leaving current standards in place, to adopt even tougher measures than proposed, saying hundreds of studies had proved greater risks from ozone than previously known, including possible premature death. "Alarmingly, the new EPA plan leaves the door wide open to an option that is unacceptable: making no improvements at all. This would ignore a decade of research," she said. "There is overwhelming evidence of the devastating health effects of ozone at levels below the current standards."

A hearing was held in Philadelphia on Thursday as well, and three will be held in coming months in other parts of the country. Johnson has until March to make his final decision.

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