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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

L.A. Retro

Air Date: Week of

After years of progress in battling pollution, Los Angeles is experiencing its worst air quality in half a decade. Host Laura Knoy discusses this retro development with Los Angeles Times reporter Gary Polakovic.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.


KNOY: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood.

It used to be that air quality in the Los Angeles area was the butt of jokes on late night talk shows, and the bane of folks with respiratory problems. But thanks to tougher state emissions controls, the skies over L.A. cleared and the air quality steadily improved. Up until now, that is. This year, Los Angelenos experienced the worst air since 1998. The mixture of heat and pollution got so bad this month that the city was under a stage one smog alert, the first in five years. Gary Polakovic has been covering this retro trend for the Los Angeles Times. He says these stage one days can hurt people spending time outdoors.

POLAKOVIC: When we have stage 1 episodes—and they have been rare until this year—it means that the ozone concentration in the air has reached a level that is considered very unhealthy for everybody. So if you’re going to do any kind of strenuous outside activity like mow the lawn, go for a jog, play tennis, something like that—you are almost guaranteed that you are going to have some kind of adverse health problem, like shortness of breath, or headaches, or nausea, something along those lines.

KNOY: Wow. You know, Gary, I thought that Los Angeles was the poster child for a city that was cleaning up its air pollution. It had dropped to second place behind Houston, and, as I understand, was even supposed to drop to third, so what happened?

POLAKOVIC: Yes, how we wish we could have those times back. Those were sort of the halcyon times, those were great. What’s happened is growth. We have ten million cars, 16 million people in this basin, and at least 30,000 businesses. We have major ports, gigantic airports, I mean, you name it, and there’s pollution sources here for it. What you have is a situation where, given all that growth, unless the regulators cut emissions at almost a sprint kind of a pace, growth can quickly snowball and overtake it. And that’s a big part of what’s been happening lately.

KNOY: What has the state and local air quality management officials been doing to deal with the problem, say in the last five years, since you said that’s when it’s been getting worse?

POLAKOVIC: The real irony here is that California has always had very stringent environmental controls. We have the cleanest cars in this state, we drive the cleanest gasoline, we’ve got many of the cleanest factories you’ll find in the country, we have some of the cleanest power plants. So there have really been very few stones left unturned in trying to reduce emissions. But the problem is many of the big bites that helped drive ozone down from the bad old days, the way it used to be, many of the technologies that came online to achieve those gains have sort of played themselves out. And yet we’re still a long way from having anything we could call healthful air.

One of the strange things about the smog situation in L.A. is how much of the emissions problem is, for the most part, largely out of the control of authorities in L.A. And by that I mean the bulk of the emissions, the overwhelming majority, are coming from vehicle tailpipes. And on top of that, we have these large sources, these so-called federal sources, that are largely under the jurisdiction of the EPA. And those things include, like, the harbors in the Los Angeles area. We have one of the busiest harbors in the world here. It’s a major pollution source. We have five major airports, including LAX, in the region. Those are all major pollution sources. And you’ve got locomotives, you’ve got interstate trucking. All of these things are very, very big polluters.

KNOY: So, what could the federal government be doing to help Los Angeles clean up its air?

POLAKOVIC: One thing that would have been really helpful, had the federal government done so, would have been to seek more stringent regulations on these giant ocean-going ships we have up and down the coast. Now, just recently, the Bush administration opted to not impose more stringent regulations on those ships. Yet, to give you some idea of the magnitude of ship emissions, in the Los Angeles harbor area, one of the busiest ports in the nation, we have seen so much growth in shipping and commerce due to globalization and free trade agreements and things like that, that just those big ship emissions now, everyday, produce almost the amount of smog-forming emissions as a million cars. There are places along the California coast, like Santa Barbara and others, that are warning that unless these ship emissions are controlled—these are clean air places—they are going to become dirty air places because there is just too much boat emissions out there. We need to see similar efforts on aircraft, and aircraft support equipment, like the little luggage carriers and trolleys and things like that at airports. You need to see things on railroads. The heavy duty diesel trucks in particular, these big smoke-belching trucks often are interstate commerce sorts of issues. They need to be addressed, in no small measure, at the federal level also.

KNOY: What’s the outlook, Gary, for smog over the next couple months? You know, it’s just July.

POLAKOVIC: It would be so great if I could sit here and tell you that we’re just having a really bad hot spell right now, and it’s going to sort of clear up, and we’re going to end the year on a pretty positive note. But I don’t know anybody who believes that. In fact, what we’ve seen historically in the Los Angeles region over many, many years, is that our worst ozone actually occurs in late August, early September. That’s when the air is really, really stagnant. The sea breezes drop off as we head toward fall. And that’s when we see ozone really, really take off. And we’ve got that bout awaiting us. So nobody is predicting that this season is going to be anywhere near a clean air year

KNOY: Gary Polokivic is a reporter with The Los Angeles Times. Gary, thanks for talking with me.

POLAKOVIC: You’re welcome.



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