The Air Up There

Writer William J. Kelly reported on the health risks associated with small airborne particles produced by gasoline and diesel-powered engines [“Clear and Present Danger: The Air That We Breathe,” Sept. 23–29, 2005]. The article correctly portrayed these ultrafine particles as a growing health risk in Los Angeles and other population centers.

Unfortunately, the story leaves readers with the impression that California is doing little or nothing to address the problem. Commenting on Governor Schwarzenegger’s efforts to reduce air pollution, Tim Carmichael of the Coalition for Clean Air said, “As far as we know, there’s been no action on that since he’s been governor. They don’t even have a plan at this point.”

As former chairman of the California Air Resources Board and, now, as secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, I’ve worked closely with Governor Schwarzenegger to reduce air pollution in California. In less than two years, we have made significant progress:

Governor Schwarzenegger provided a record $160 million in funding for the Carl Moyer Program, which provides incentives to replace old, dirty diesel engines;

The governor launched the Breathe Easier campaign to encourage Californians to retire or repair older, polluting vehicles;

He established the most ambitious plan of any state or nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050);

He introduced the Hydrogen Highway Initiative, which establishes a network of hydrogen fueling stations and invests in a fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles by the end of this decade.

While some in California have chosen to ignore these accomplishments, the world is taking note. Great Britain’s chief scientist, Sir David King, said of Governor Schwarzenegger’s plan to reduce tailpipe emissions, “We now see we’re second to California — and that is one race I’m delighted to be second in.”

Alan Lloyd, Ph.D., Agency Secretary
California Environmental Protection Agency

William Kelly’s heart is obviously in the right place when it comes to greening the Southland and the planet as a whole, but his criticisms are misplaced. The Sierra Club works hard at promoting environmental solutions by operating on many different fronts and at all levels of society. That includes challenging proposed development projects like Tejon Ranch and Newhall Ranch that would gobble up open space and create more traffic; promoting regional planning and public transit development as a way to give people more commuting choices and make communities more livable; pushing automakers to utilize the latest fuel-saving technologies to reduce smog and global warming pollution and to kick our oil habit; and fighting for fair trade rules so that our local economy and environment can withstand the negative impacts of globalization. In Southern California, the Sierra Club has actively opposed (not supported, as Mr. Kelly claims) the import of liquefied natural gas, particularly the terminal proposed for the busy port of Long Beach. The club has also launched a True Cost of Food campaign, stressing the “overhead” paid by consumers for imported and processed foods. A Sierra Club–sponsored sustainable-food festival on Oct. 18 drew hundreds to South Coast Farms, an Orange County producer of organic vegetables. A club committee on air quality and energy issues is pressing local agencies in Los Angeles and four nearby Southland cities on air quality standards and reporting. Moreover, contrary to Mr. Kelly’s assertions, the Sierra Club is a strong opponent of new coal and nuclear power plants, opting instead for major investments in efficiency and renewable energies like solar. And he is obviously unaware of the extent to which we are already working very closely with labor unions on a wide range of issues, from smart growth to pollution prevention to renewable energy. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Sierra Club’s very agenda is not the product of some secret cabal, as Mr. Kelly suggests. We have an unusually democratic process for direction setting. Our leaders are democratically elected by the club’s members. And we are just about to complete a monumental planning process led by 1,800 of our top volunteers around the country. That commitment to grassroots democracy is why we’ve been successful for over a century and it will be our greatest strength as we head into the future.

Jan Kidwell
Air Quality, Global Warming & Energy Committee Chair
Angeles Chapter, Sierra Club
North Hollywood

Being politically conservative, I tend to take a dim view of much of your news and opinion writing. You understand, I hope. But I have to admit that I was totally blown away by your special report on air quality in Los Angeles. After reading the report, I looked at my asthmatic wife across the table and felt literally sick. I have not stopped thinking about it yet.


David M. Marquez
Los Angeles

First, I want to commend the L.A. Weekly for the responsible reporting on the state of air quality that we now live with around the Los Angeles area. There was, however, one very huge source of air pollution that this excellent edition apparently let slip under the radar screen. That is aircraft operations. How many of us have driven past LAX and smelled the raw jet kerosene from jets as they sit idling, back-to-back, waiting to take off? I know this smell very well as it replaces the sweet-smelling ocean breezes and permeates through open windows and doors into the homes east of the Santa Monica Airport. Santa Monica Airport is another poster child for so much of what was written in this issue of the L.A. Weekly. Maybe you would consider doing a follow-up about airport air pollution around the Los Angeles area.

Martin Rubin

As a faithful reader for lo these many years, I must congratulate your entire staff on the well-researched, wonderfully written, inspiring article on the air we breathe. In past years, articles in Time, Newsweek, etc., have scratched the surface on the air pollution we have in the City of Angels, but you have outdone them all. Never have I seen such a painstaking project and so brilliantly presented. I pioneered the first electric automobile in Los Angeles in Dec. of 1996, the General Motors EV1. I drove 80,000 smog-free miles and had six years of wonderful adventures until GM pulled the plug, and destroyed all the electric vehicles, forcing we few leasees to return our cars against our will. Alas, grasping at last straws, I got hold of Toyota’s electric car, the RAV4EV, and it is still running around town, causing no pollution. There are very few of them on the highways today. Toyota has ceased production, and soon no parts will be left and the electric dream will fade away. What a shame. Several of my family members now operate the hybrids and to them I am grateful. It is such a tragedy that corporate greed will shorten our lives by the continuation of poisoning the air we share. Thanks again for your thorough set of articles and for the many years of a great publication, the L.A. Weekly.

Charlie McCollister
Simi Valley

Anyone who thinks that kicking shippers out of L.A.’s ports is going to bring back the region’s manufacturing is pitifully naive. As has been shown in the controversy over the LNG terminal in Long Beach, if infrastructure projects can’t be built in Southern California, Ensenada is always right down the road. A middle class based on unskilled manufacturing jobs is not going to come back in this country, and especially not in a town where NIMBYs have forced up the cost of living by screaming bloody murder if someone tries to build so much as a duplex in their neighborhood (and let’s not even get into Prop. 13).

Pete McFerrin
Los Angeles

Your latest issue on air pollution once again merits a Pulitzer. However, I noticed several ideas your issue did not develop fully. First of all, a few months ago, City Beat published an article by various CEOs of solar energy companies. According to these CEOs, Los Angeles could become the next Silicon Valley for solar energy. Equally intriguing is the development of nano-solar technology. With the philosophy that solar energy is ready for production, here are two ways to jump-start the solar industry. First of all, we must insist that all reconstruction buildings in the current Gulf Coast disaster zone be built with solar energy collectors on the roofs and solar-powered water heaters. The federal government must subsidize the increased building costs. Secondly, we could install solar energy collectors on the roofs of all buildings in LAUSD which could then sell surplus energy to DWP. Since the traditional summer vacation — a time when schools are operating at a minimum — coincides with the peak energy demand in Los Angeles, LAUSD could make a lot of extra money. (Perhaps the money spent on Governor Schwarzenegger’s special election would be better spent on this endeavor. And perhaps CalSTRS would be willing to invest in this program if it could get an inside deal on solar energy stocks or bonds.) Also I noticed no mention of switchgrass as an energy source. According to recent articles in both National Geographic as well as Mother Jones, switchgrass could produce a cleaner fuel than ethanol from corn — and it thrives on marginal land. Biomass fuels could even power hydrogen production. These are just two suggestions. I am sure other readers will come up with more. A sane energy policy — especially in Los Angeles — will evolve from a mixture of all these ideas. Incidentally, labeling any attempt to improve the air as “job killer” is a phony issue. Our current policies are “people killers.” Truth is that we do not need to choose between jobs and human lives. If Los Angeles becomes the new center for renewable energy, that industry itself will generate a lot of job growth.


William Joseph Miller

Thank you so much for publishing the recent story “Clear and Present Danger: The Air That We Breathe” by William J. Kelly. You have proved that L.A. Weekly is not afraid to get its hands dirty to uncover the truth. Sometimes I feel like the last person on Earth who knows about the dangerous smog we breathe every day. Unlike many other smog stories I have read, this one covered the problem very thoroughly. It is not a simple problem, and it deserves to get more of this kind of attention. The air isn’t going to get better if just a few yuppies switch to hybrids, it is going to take much, much more work, the sooner, the better.

Johanna Bradfield
San Pedro

Kelly responds:

To Jan Kidwell of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club, I admire the organization as one of the only major environmental groups that is grassroots-based and democratic. I also commend the activities of the local chapter, but would point out that what happens at the grassroots sometimes does not seem to percolate to the top of the organization. For instance, Sierra Club has endorsed but not actively joined Ratepayers for Affordable Clean Energy, a coalition of smaller environmental and human rights groups that has been at the forefront of legal action to keep the state from becoming dependent on imported liquefied natural gas. Natural Resources Defense Council and other major groups have remained neutral on the issue. I recognize that Sierra Club has fought clean coal and if you read the article closely, I note that representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council were the ones in Sacramento discussing under what conditions the state should get involved in a Western clean coal project.

To Pete McFerrin, manufacturing and construction jobs in the U.S. generally pay more than jobs at Wal-Mart selling goods made abroad. Also, manufacturers in Southern California have been at the forefront of using lower- or non-polluting materials and processes in making products. More could be made here without hurting air quality. For instance, turning Southern California into a center for renewable energy has the potential to create new manufacturing jobs. Installing solar and other renewable energy and energy conservation equipment in buildings offers economic development opportunity. Building new rail and rapid bus lines and rebuilding areas around transit stations to be more dense offers major skilled employment opportunities too. By contrast, creating a facility to import liquefied natural gas will provide a few hundred construction jobs for a few years, and then only a handful of jobs to operate the plant. It will tend to forestall investment in renewable energy and energy conservation measures, which has the potential to provide far more jobs, most of them skilled. It is not the environment versus the economy, but how we shape the economy that is important to our quality of life.

To California Secretary of the Environment Alan Lloyd, there is little doubt that the governor has taken some steps to control air pollution. However, to use a phrase coined by former Vice President Walter Mondale, “Where’s the beef?” The governor may be in favor of cleaning up diesel pollution, but would not support Senator Alan Lowenthal’s bill to raise the money needed to merely stop pollution from growing at Southern California’s ports. Doing so at the Port of Los Angeles alone would cost up to $16 billion. Including Long Beach might double the needed investment. While $160 million for the Carl Moyer Program sounds good, next to the tens of billions of dollars ultimately needed it doesn’t measure up. Aside from that, it doesn’t require the polluter to pay for cleanup, but instead transfers money from all of us to the shipping industries. That’s why pollution from goods movement is growing.

Finally, to David Marquez, your observation that you are conservative but still concerned about air pollution is extremely astute. Cleaning up air pollution is a public-health issue, not one of ideology. It affects the health of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans equally. Unfortunately, neither party has done enough to clean up Southern California’s air, leaving all here to suffer.

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