Photo by Alan Clements

The Air That We Breathe

As the plane banks from the Mojave Desert over the San Bernardino Mountains and heads into the Los Angeles basin, I begin to lose my 20,000-foot view of the rocks and forests below.

They barely poke through the haze, a dense and uneven soup of gray caused by the daily routines and demands of a growing economy, which burns 21 million gallons of motor fuel and 2.7 million cubic feet of natural gas a day.

From my vantage point high above L.A., I am not at all surprised by the growing body of research that suggests this noxious blend of particle pollution is killing thousands of people who breathe it in the houses, businesses, factories and shopping malls that dot the land along the 80-mile approach into Los Angeles International Airport.

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But once we’re on the ground, it looks like a relatively clear day. The mass arrays of particles — excreted by gasoline- and diesel-powered engines — are impossible to detect. But they have not gone away. These microscopic specks — more than a million of them can be found in a marble-sized chunk of air in the smoggiest parts of Southern California — are only visible when sunlight reflects off them.

What 16 million people in the L.A. basin can’t see is sickening and killing them at rates only now becoming known. Every year, 9,600 people statewide die from cancer and respiratory problems caused by air pollution, most of them in Southern California, says state toxicologist Bart Ostro. Reports released last month by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) show just how dangerous it can be to breathe the air in parts of Los Angeles County where these minute particles are fouling people’s bodies and becoming lodged in their lungs and hearts. The highest cancer rates in the county are found near the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where as many as one of every 200 residents is expected to get a pollution-related cancer during their lifetime.

“The current air we are breathing is damaging the health of all humans,” says Dr. John Peters, director of the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center at USC, whose groundbreaking research has shown just how harmful the tiniest particles can be. “We need to improve air quality.” (See“The Smog Doctor.”)

This new health menace — which may be the unwitting consequence of pollution-control devices on vehicles — arrives just as Los Angeles residents and politicians have grown complacent after decades of watching gradual cleansing of the air. No longer are Stage One smog alerts commonplace, as they were in 1976, when people were urged on 102 days to remain indoors to avoid eye-stinging ozone. Even at the height of the summer, along the smog belt from Burbank to Riverside, smog conceals the San Gabriel and the San Bernardino mountains on far fewer days than at the height of the smog wars in the 1970s and into the early 1990s.

The air appears so clean on most days that, outside the port area, where convoys of thousands of diesel trucks and ships poison the air, there are few rallying cries heard for clean air. But residents in most pockets of the L.A. basin, from San Marino to Compton, from Westwood to Boyle Heights, are suffering — many unknowingly — at the hands of a public-health hazard scientists are only beginning to fully understand.

L.A.’s air police — the AQMD and the statewide Air Resources Board (ARB) — have not fully responded to this latest danger, in part because it is not clear what can be done about it. Some scientists believe the limits of technology have been reached when it comes to tinkering with cleaner ways to operate fossil-fuel engines. The search for zero-emissions automobiles has been slowed by powerful car-industry lobbies, as well as by political appointees to the statewide air board, who do not see the urgency to develop a car that runs on electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.

Industries elude regulation through their influence on William Burke, the AQMD board’s chairman, and Barry Wallerstein, the executive officer, who continue to allow businesses to trade in air-pollution rights and are now discussing expanded trading for area oil refineries. It’s true that they often propose ambitious regulations, but frowning on controversy, they water many of them down, or simply wait — sometimes years — to adopt them. In response to oil-industry concerns, for instance, AQMD has relaxed a proposal to minimize smoke and noxious odors from refinery flares, even before bringing it to its own board for consideration.

At the same time as the threat grows from particle pollution, the region is stalling in its three-decade-long struggle against lung-burning ozone. Earlier this year, the Bush administration took the pressure off by extending a key deadline for Los Angeles. Bush eliminated the decades-old one-hour federal ozone standard and the 2010 deadline for the region to meet it. The one-hour standard (based on the day's worst hour of pollution) is supposed to keep ozone from rising high enough to cause acute health effects. In its place, Bush let stand the more rigorous eight-hour standard set by President Clinton. However, he extended the deadline for meeting that standard to 2021, giving the region 11 more years to clean up pollution. The administration also undercut the intentions of Congress and the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, which granted highly polluted areas like California and Los Angeles the power to issue special orders to businesses to clean up the air. Bush and his appointees have blocked cleaner trucks here, required the use of dirty ethanol in gasoline, and moved to ensure the dominance of fossil fuel.

“For me, it’s troubling to look at a 30-year trend of improving air quality and then we hit the brakes,” says Gail Ruderman Feuer, a former senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and now an L.A. Superior Court judge.

Given the toll of death and sickness and the rapid pace of discoveries documenting the extent of damage caused by particle pollution, the unhealthy state of our air amounts to a public-health emergency. Yet no elected official will step forward to declare such a crisis. At a time when politicians and smog-fighting agencies should be unveiling new initiatives to combat air pollution, they are retreating.

Congressional leaders, including Westside Democrat Henry Waxman, who helped tighten the Clean Air Act in 1990, should be leading the campaign to reduce pollution at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. But he’s largely been relegated to the sidelines now.

In Sacramento, L.A.’s delegation should be demanding new laws to deal with sprawl, the trucking industry and restoring uncompromising air standards. But too often the best legislation, such as efforts by Democratic state Senator Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, to crack down on diesel pollution at the ports fails because it is seen as a threat to business.

At the city level, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his environment-friendly Harbor Commission should reject his predecessor’s “no net increase” plan for the ports, and find ways to reduce pollution that sickens and kills adults and children because of the deadly convoy of 30,000 trucks leaving the port every day. For now, Villaraigosa isn’t thinking big enough: “I’ve been on record as supporting the no-net-increase proposal from the beginning. One of the things they’re going to have to figure out is how we pay for it,” the mayor says. “A lot of work was done by the former commission on it, in conjunction with the community, and I think we ought to build on that work.”

Politicians at all levels of government should be bringing together scientists and residents to propose ways for local, state and federal authorities to address the crisis. Eradicating life-threatening pollution from our skies will require that politicians make public health the top priority — more important than even economic growth. Leaders with such a focus are rare. I know this firsthand; after 13 years as press spokesman for the AQMD, I resigned in 2001, troubled by the creeping corporate influence that weakened the agency.

The absence of strong leadership in the clean-air struggle has dark consequences, and they can be seen every day at hospitals, where doctors treat asthmatics and others in respiratory distress.

“Air pollution has been likened to passive smoking,” says Kaiser emergency-room physician and firebrand clean-air activist John Miller, noting that smoking has been banned in public spaces, including the workplace. “Why the hell do we let these industries create a passive-smoking situation for millions?”

Profiling a Killer

Deep within the heart of UCLA’s biomedical complex, researchers have been studying a new form of deadly pollution known as ultrafine particles. They may be the most damaging to human health of all pollutants in the sky.

The Southern California Particle Center and Supersite is located in an unassuming red-brick building on the UCLA campus, just across the street from the university’s ultramodern-looking Neuroscience Research Center.

The windowless halls of the particle center are covered with slightly worn linoleum and lit by bright fluorescent lights. Some offices are stuffed with scientific papers, while other rooms house scientific equipment.

John Froines — a passionate scientist who was one of the Chicago Seven — directs the center. Since his days as an activist protesting the Vietnam War, he has become one of the pre-eminent toxicologists in the nation, graduating from Yale University with a doctorate in chemistry. The now white-haired, bespectacled Froines has traced the source of the deadly particle pollution to the devices that have been placed on trucks since the late 1990s. Newer cars also contribute.

This new category of particle pollution — known as ultrafine particles — may be the most damaging to human health of all pollutants in the sky. It’s associated with heart disease, strokes and losses in lung function, and suspected of contributing to brain diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Moreover, the levels of the tiny particles are rising. A recent study completed at UCLA shows that the number of these ultrafine particles in the air has increased by 62 percent or more in parts of the L.A. Basin since 1997.

“There’s a gap between the science developing and the regulatory view of the problem,” says Froines. He believes the California Air Resources Board and federal Environmental Protection Agency will have to re-examine automotive emissions standards to get a handle on ultrafine particles.

“We are having major issues before us at a time we think we’ve made some improvements,” says Froines. “As the mass of particles has declined over the years, the number of particles has been increasing. Those ultrafine particles are the most toxic.”

The problem is worse on freeways and busy highways, he says. Measurements show each cubic centimeter of air along the busy Long Beach Freeway in Los Angeles can contain a million or more of the ultrafine particles. By contrast, the same quantity of air found at the beach has only hundreds of the particles. Primary exposure occurs when people are in cars or live, work or study around busy roadways and freeways. As the ultrafine particles move downwind, they join together into larger particles.

Froines’ concerns are echoed by researchers at the University of Minnesota, who have been chasing cars and other vehicles to measure levels of ultrafine particles coming out of tailpipes. Emissions standards have done little to control ultrafine particles, and in some cases they may be increasing as visible black soot is removed from diesel vehicles, says Winthrop Watts, a research associate in the mechanical engineering department at the university. Watts predicts that the EPA eventually will set a new standard to address ultrafine particles, one he hopes will limit the number of particles allowed in the air.

Studies conducted in the Caldecott Tunnel in the East San Francisco Bay area show that ultrafine particles have more than doubled, increasing by 143 percent between 1997 and 2004. Froines reasons that the same pollution controls that are eliminating the big particles are causing the increase in ultrafine particles, which form as vapors condense on car and truck tailpipes. Normally, the smaller particles would accumulate on the bigger ones as they leave the tailpipes. However, as new catalysts required by regulators remove the bigger particles, ultrafine particles remain in the air until they glom on to one another, typically about 100 yards downwind of freeways and other roads. They expose people to bigger doses of pollution by penetrating deeper into the body than the larger particles.

Higher-temperature, higher-efficiency engines also increase the number of ultrafine particles, says Froines.

Froines and others worry that rising levels of ultrafine particles may be erasing much of the health benefit of controlling the larger particles, or even making things worse.

A federal EPA scientist who would speak only on a background basis acknowledged that trillions of ultrafine particles form from vapors in automotive exhaust. However, he maintained that EPA emissions standards — which manufacturers plan to meet on new diesel trucks by installing oxidation catalysts beginning in 2007 — most likely will reduce ultrafine particle levels too, despite what Froines and others are finding in their research. He did acknowledge, as Froines pointed out, that diesel engines built since October 2002 operate at temperatures about 30 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than older engines, because of their use of systems that recirculate hot exhaust through the engine to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions.

Watts, at the University of Minnesota, maintained that even though the oxidation catalysts catch some exhaust vapors, it is still possible that the combination of hotter temperatures and removal of larger particles will result in a net increase in ultrafine particles in diesel exhaust.

Gasoline-powered cars also seem to be emitting more ultrafine particles because they use pollution-control systems similar to those used in trucks to control nitrogen oxides and have been built to operate at higher, more efficient temperatures as time has passed, says Froines.

Once inhaled, ultrafine particles pass through the wall of the lung cells and invade the mitochondria, which produce the energy that cells need to live, according to a joint study conducted by UCLA and USC. The damage to the mitochondria eventually reduces the ability of the cells to function normally, thereby reducing overall lung function. Reduced lung function makes it harder for people to fight off infections and cope with allergens, as well as to extract needed oxygen from each breath.

The particles also penetrate through the lung tissue and are carried by the bloodstream into the brain, Froines says. Researchers, he adds, are inquiring into whether the particles — which contain toxic metals and hydrocarbons — may be linked to degenerative brain conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The particles already are known to cause inflammation of the brain in rats, which can cause cell damage.

Likewise, the ultrafine particles have been shown to contribute to heart disease and strokes. “The more particles, the thicker the blood vessel,” observes USC's Dr. Peters. A study by Peters and researchers from Harvard University shows increased incidence of heart attacks following episodes of fine-particle pollution in the atmosphere.

Dangers of the Status Quo

The urgency of the region’s war against smog largely evaporated in 2005. Even some of the foulest air in San Bernardino County’s smog belt can’t inspire Democratic Assemblyman Joe Baca Jr. of Rialto to support clean-air legislation in Sacramento. “I’m focused on jobs,” he says.

Instead of devising plans to once and for all clean up the air, most politicians — even the ones doing the most to fight for smog controls — are content with the status quo. Ex-Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn’s port commission proposed a “no net increase” plan that will not reduce, but merely keep, emissions from the city’s massive port operation at their current level. The port in neighboring Long Beach — ruled by a commission appointed by Mayor Beverly O’Neill — won’t even go that far.

The shipping industries have put the region over a barrel on clean-air issues. Behind the scenes, the industries that rely on diesel equipment — including freight shipping and construction — say that if the public wants clean air, let the public pay for it. The industry threatens to move and take jobs away from the region, acknowledges Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who has led a legislative battle in Sacramento to make the industry clean up its own pollution. “I’m always the job killer,” he says.

So far, shippers have successfully turned back any efforts to make them pay for the burden they impose on health and quality of life. This year, the powerful railroad and shipping industries managed to block Lowenthal’s bill to levy fees on goods moved through the port to establish a cleanup fund for the freight industry. “They hired lots of lobbyists to kill my bill,” he says. The Schwarzenegger administration wouldn’t back the bill either, believing instead that the public must pay a good part of the tab for cleaning up pollution from the shipping industries.

Most of the cleanup of diesel emissions from trucks, buses, harbor craft, construction equipment, and other diesel equipment is being financed by taxpayers through the Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program. Air-quality officials and environmentalists praise lawmakers and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for making the program permanent. However, most of the money comes from everyday motorists, who pay up to $6 more to register their cars, plus added disposal fees when they buy new tires. The industries that profit from moving goods and making diesel exhaust get a free ride.

The sluggish pace of regulators sets the wrong tone for a response to a public-health crisis.

A case in point is a rule AQMD promised in 2002. The regulation is supposed to protect communities already hard hit by toxic air pollution from any worsening of their air as new sources of toxic gases, metals and other chemicals seek to open in their neighborhoods. Three years later the rules still have not been adopted in the face of industry opposition as the agency continues to study them and is prepared only to test the waters with a slimmed-down rule that would prevent new toxic sources from locating next to schools. It would leave unaddressed existing sources of toxic pollution near schools, and renege on the original idea of protecting whole neighborhoods that are overburdened with toxic air.

In Sacramento, an auto-industry suit successfully ended the state’s zero-emissions electric-vehicle standard, so Schwarzenegger and Terry Tamminen, secretary of California's EPA, crafted a “hydrogen highways” program in its place. However, the program to foster a transition to hydrogen-powered cars does not even seek to reduce air pollution. Most of the hydrogen will be made with fossil fuels instead of renewable power. Consequently, its goal is simply “no net increase” in air pollution.

It’s all too common for land-use and economic-development policies to conflict with clean-air policies. Earlier this year, for instance, the ARB delayed guidelines recommending that cities not allow new housing and schools near busy and highly polluted freeways. Cindy Tuck — a chief lobbyist for the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, which represents big oil and other major industries — opposed making even nonbinding recommendations for setbacks from sources of pollution. Later Schwarzenegger named her to lead the air board, replacing Gray Davis appointee Alan Lloyd, who stepped down as its chairman to become Cal-EPA secretary. The state Senate refused to confirm her.

Action, in general, has stalled at the state air board since Lloyd’s departure. “I have been concerned there is not enough activity going on to get to our clean-air standards,” says Bonnie Holmes-Gen, assistant vice president of government relations for the American Lung Association in Sacramento.

Locally, sprawl continues as city council members and county supervisors throughout the four-county region routinely approve massive housing developments, ignoring the burden placed on the region’s congested freeways and skeletal public-transit systems. The Los Angeles City Council rubber-stamps customs breaks for new import warehouses that are magnets for diesel trucks without environmental analyses.

Sprawl and auto-centered development make it almost impossible to build a public-transit system that can move the majority of people in Southern California, as developers pit one city against the next to compete for the development dollar. The region’s land-use and transportation planning agency has no enforcement power, so motorists are forced to drive farther and farther to get to work.

“The only way we can address our air-quality problem is by tackling land-use development,” says Feuer. “We as a society are not doing anything to address the continuing problem of long-distance commutes.” People are beginning to commute into the region from as far away as Bakersfield, she adds.

New threats loom too. Global warming is expected to increase smog in summer, according to a study by the state air board. Emerging scientific research shows that the tiniest and most unhealthful particles in the air emitted from vehicle tailpipes, power plants and other fossil-fuel-burning equipment are on the rise.

The Powerless Smog Police

Not surprisingly, after three generations of Californians have fought smog, the bad guys always seem to escape, suits unruffled, through an edifice of air-pollution laws and regulations riddled with loopholes and exceptions designed to assure that no shareholders miss their quarterly dividend or executive his bonus.

At a time of record profits for the oil industry, recent AQMD statistics show almost a third of gas stations add tons of hydrocarbon emissions to the air each day by failing to meet standards that require them to keep nozzles from dripping and to capture 95 percent of gasoline vapors when motorists fill their tanks. The high level of noncompliance comes after the ARB in 2000 adopted regulations to require the stations to install self-diagnostic systems that would automatically shut off leaky pumps, beginning in 2004. However, the rules still have not taken effect because of “technological problems,” says Jerry Martin, a spokesman for ARB.

Meanwhile, rather than raising fees high enough to hire more inspectors and staff, the AQMD board cut its staff by 28 positions last year. AQMD has 114 inspectors to regulate more than 30,000 businesses over an area of almost 11,000 square miles. Many of the businesses, including refineries, power plants and chemical plants, operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The federal EPA, which is supposed to oversee state and local pollution-control agencies, has not reviewed AQMD’s enforcement program, says Matt Haber, who heads the air-pollution program at the federal agency’s San Francisco office.

At the state level, the ARB has been failing when it comes to adopting standards for clean-fueled trucks and buses, says Tim Carmichael of the Coalition for Clean Air. The state could have adopted the so-called clean fleet rules statewide after truck and bus makers challenged rules adopted by the AQMD to require cities here to shift to clean-fueled vehicles. A spokesperson for the air board says the agency will adopt standards one by one for different types of diesel vehicles beginning later this year.

Just last week, ARB's board declined to adopt clean-air standards for school buses amid complaints about the expense.

Carmichael also points out that when Schwarzenegger took office he promised to cut air pollution statewide in half by 2010. “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.”

Unrestrained economic growth is another contributor to the ongoing pall of air pollution that hangs over the region.

No agency or lawmaker — not even most environmentalists — will question the holy grail of growth, no matter what the long-term effect on air pollution, public health and quality of life. Even Lowenthal — hailed for his sponsorship of a bill to place fees on containers moved through the ports to finance pollution controls — believes that California’s shipping industry must continue to grow. His legislation would not cap port growth to control pollution, it would only require both ports to adopt a “no net increase” policy on pollution. “There’s too much at stake,” he says, to let the industry wither.

If the pollution cannot be mitigated with affordable technology, people will just have to live and die with it. Even the federal health standards for ozone and particle pollution still allow for 3,100 deaths a year statewide — saving just 6,500 of the 9,600 who now die each year from lung and heart ailments related to air pollution, not to mention cancer.

To meet those standards by 2021, the AQMD, the state air board and the federal EPA will need to cut 446 tons per day of emissions using so-called “black box” measures, which either involve wholly new control technologies or a reduction in the cost of existing technologies. Among them, for instance, are extending clean-fuel requirements to private fleets, as well as public fleets of trucks and buses; enabling ships to use onshore electricity while docked, so they do not have to run their engines to make power; and installing solar- and other forms of renewable-power systems to make electricity for the region. Most of the technologies are available today and could be required by the state air board, AQMD, the ports, and other regulatory bodies.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has forced California to use ethanol in gasoline, even though it increases air pollution. It has relaxed standards that are supposed to prevent pollution from increasing when businesses expand or open anew. Sacramento lawmakers had to enact a state law to restore the original standards within California, but even with that they are far from airtight.

The administration sided with automakers in challenging and overturning the state’s electric-vehicle standard, and backs their campaign against California standards calling for new cars with lower emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The administration also sided with truck and bus makers when they sued to block enforcement of AQMD clean-fuel standards for public trucks and buses used to collect garbage, provide public transit and meet other needs.

Congress’ Failure to Help

Not even California’s congressional delegation seems able to clear our skies. Last spring, I witnessed the spectacle of once-powerful Representative Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) trying unsuccessfully to get his colleagues in the House of Representatives to approve a study on how to voluntarily reduce use of polluting petroleum. It happened during debate on the sweeping energy bill. Waxman offered an amendment that would have required the federal government to try to reduce petroleum use by 4 percent by 2013, through measures including recommending that motorists keep their tires inflated and federal government support of speed-limit enforcement. His amendment would not have required automakers to build cars with better mileage.

“In this House, even this is controversial, as amazing as it may seem,” said Waxman, arguing for his amendment. “This seems to be the only place in America where trying not to waste oil is a bad thing.”

The energy bill, now law, hands out tens of billions of dollars to the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. “It ignores science, to ease the way for polluters,” says Waxman, whose arguments were largely ignored. His amendment lost, with 262 House members voting “no” and only 166 “yes.”

Waxman’s failure to win approval of a simple study and voluntary measures is symptomatic of how California’s Democratic delegation has been isolated by the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, no longer able to pass bills or even convene oversight hearings on the Republican-dominated federal EPA.

Upon reflection, Waxman told me that the vote was “a defining moment.”

He continued: “When the amendment was voted down, I knew Congress was not serious about reducing our dependence on foreign oil. We need to stop our dependence on foreign oil. Starting this process sooner rather than later is the key to protecting our pristine and most valued natural areas and making the environment cleaner and safer for all Americans.”

License to Pollute

A business-as-usual climate impedes the decision-making by the agencies charged with improving L.A.’s air.

Large industries — like power producers and refineries — benefit from emissions-trading and other regulatory loopholes for new or expanded facilities, pacts that allow tons of new pollution on the smoggiest days, even though the intent of the Clean Air Act is to prevent economic expansion from increasing pollution.

Typical is a planned power plant in Riverside, which has the worst particle pollution in the nation. The AQMD has proposed a permit for the facility, to be operated by Riverside’s municipal utility, which would allow more than an additional ton of particulate matter to be emitted each month. Smog-forming nitrogen-oxide emissions could be concentrated in the smoggiest time of the year too.

The loophole stems in part from the AQMD’s pollution-trading program, known as the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market, or RECLAIM. Before that program took effect, the agency’s new-source review rule required major industrial facilities to meet daily emissions limits. RECLAIM, however, eliminated this requirement, placing operators under more flexible, annual emissions limits.

The old new-source review requirement mandated that operators offset emissions on the smoggiest days by reducing pollution at other facilities they ran or by buying expensive credits from other polluters who had reduced their emissions more than the required amount on the same days. In this way, total emissions would not increase on any day.

However, under RECLAIM, only total annual emissions must be offset, which means that on the smoggiest days when the power plant runs, there will be an increase in emissions.

Major power plants in Los Angeles are able to emit more pollution under the emissions-trading program too. After being recently rebuilt, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Valley Generating Station alone will be able to emit 142 tons a year of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to ozone and fine-particle pollution, according to a report by Environment California, up from 10 tons of emissions in 1995. A good part of those emissions will occur on smoggy summer days.

Overall, the trading program has provided loopholes for eight new or reopened power plants constructed in the region since the energy crisis, according to the California Energy Commission. Other energy companies benefit too. For instance, the California Energy Commission projects that gasoline use will increase by 48 percent by 2020. Demand for natural gas is going up too.

A lack of coordination between government agencies makes air pollution worse.

There is a jumble of single-purpose government agencies, often working at cross-purposes and using artificially constrained methods of analyzing the impacts of their decisions. When things do not work as planned, they often descend into bickering and finger-pointing among themselves.

In the latest case, after years of ineffectiveness in its efforts to stop the growth of pollution from diesel trains, the AQMD may derail a voluntary agreement that the state Air Resources Board entered into with the railroad industry to reduce emissions by 20 percent. The agency and environmental groups say it is unenforceable. They also are upset that the state air board and railroads negotiated it without local representation.

However, ARB maintains that railroad emissions have been growing for many years and that the AQMD failed to do anything about it. “The bottom line was that table had been empty for many years,” says state air board spokesman Martin.

The agreement is voluntary, he says, because even the state has no legal authority to regulate the industry, which is protected from most local or state requirements under the interstate-commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Increasing diesel emissions exposes flawed environmental and economic analysis by government agencies with conflicting missions.

For example, moving goods on trains is more fuel-efficient and less polluting than moving them on trucks, but cities seeking property taxes offer competing incentives to snare warehousing facilities. As a consequence, warehouses are scattered throughout the area, leaving them no choice but to haul many of their imported goods on the higher-polluting trucks.

Strong regional environmental analysis would solve the problem, says Michel Gelobter, executive director of Redefining Progress, a sustainable-economics think tank. “It points to the need for looking at the big picture,” he says.

In another example, Los Angeles port officials heralded an agreement to expand one rail yard and build another near the waterfront in a move that would eliminate trucks from the 710 freeway. However, the yards would lie near the Hudson Elementary School in neighboring Long Beach, as well as houses. Up to a million trucks a year would carry shipping containers to the rail yards from the ship terminals.

Finally, new concerns about global warming and dwindling oil and natural-gas supplies complicate the task of cleaning up air pollution. Making cleaner gasoline and diesel fuel, for instance, increases global-warming emissions because it takes more energy and oil. After Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf of Mexico, one of the Bush administration’s first moves to assure an adequate supply of fuel to motorists was to temporarily waive clean-air standards for gasoline. The state air board endorsed the change here in California earlier this month, in a move that will add 50 tons per day of ozone-forming hydrocarbons to the air, statewide. As oil supplies tighten in the future, California will be under increasing pressure to accept dirtier fuels.

Responding to the Public-Health Emergency

So the shame of air pollution continues in Los Angeles since smog began during World War II, when armament factories boomed and people flocked here seeking new opportunities. Regulators have chipped away at the problem — reducing the peak level of ozone by some three-quarters — but they have not solved it.

After years of steady improvement in the 1990s, ozone levels have gone up and down in the years since 1999. For instance, the number of days in violation of the federal standard for ozone dropped from 163 in 1990 to 111 in 1998. Since then, the number has wavered, hitting 120 days in 2003, then dropping to just 88 last summer, with its exceptionally cool weather. “We’ll see a little poorer scorecard this year than last year,” says Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist for the AQMD. So far this year, the number of days over the ozone standard is 81, and unhealthful levels of the pollutant are likely to occur for several more weeks into the fall. The area has exceeded the discarded one-hour ozone standard 29 days, one more than the 28 days over the benchmark in all of last year.

The agency still routinely cautions residents against exercise during summer because ensuing medical research has shown that lower levels of ozone damage health more than was originally known. “We’re finding more effects,” explains Dr. Ed Avol, a researcher at USC’s Environmental Health Services Center.

The slow pace of regulatory authorities has left levels of air pollution today that still send mothers and fathers racing their gasping, asthmatic children to hospital emergency rooms in the night. Pollution still prematurely slows otherwise healthy middle-aged people with chronic respiratory diseases. It still grinds down thousands a year with cancer, strokes, heart attacks and lung disease. They die unnoticed by the public eye, leaving behind loved ones burdened by medical bills.

“We’re currently in a crisis,” says Todd Campbell, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air. “We haven’t had any progress in five years.”

To revive the massive bureaucracies and rejuvenate the clean-air fight, lawmakers must play a major role.

In Congress, California Democrats, including Representative Waxman, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Barbara Boxer, need to persuade their colleagues to push for more federal funding to clean up the ports, and to shift toward renewable forms of energy.

“We must act now,” says Jon Slangerup, chief executive officer at Solar Integrated Technologies. “My primary fear is we may be denied the chance to transition to renewables.” Slangerup adds that a massive oil and gas shock could drain the economy, leaving the state and nation unable to invest in the equipment needed to shift toward renewable power and hydrogen made with wind and solar power instead of fossil fuel.

Already, the state cannot get utilities to deploy enough renewable power plants to keep up with a growing population’s rising demand for electricity. New houses and appliances are more energy-efficient, but they are bigger and packed with more energy-gobbling devices than in times past. Southern California power producers are installing more windmills and solar-power systems, but also more fossil-fueled power plants, like Burbank’s Magnolia plant, which opened earlier this year.

In Sacramento, Schwarzenegger should shift his position and support fees on shipments through the port to fund cleanup of diesel pollution, as proposed by Lowenthal.

Next year, legislators cannot delay re-examining the environmental-bond initiative introduced by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Woodland Hills), which would provide crucial funds for cleaner fuels, including hydrogen.

On a regulatory level, the state air board should speed up adoption of rules to move trucks, buses and other equipment to cleaner fuels. The ARB and AQMD must lead the charge to change state law, so that they begin to rein in sprawl and create communities that would allow public transit to work. Facing similar pressure, Sacramento lawmakers merged the area’s county air-pollution control districts into one district 30 years ago. Progress on smog ensued.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should show his green commitment by going beyond his predecessor’s no-net-increase policy at the ports, and by seeking to move the LADWP more quickly toward renewable power. He might start by canceling planned investments to lengthen the life of aging LADWP fossil-fuel plants, and spend the money on wind-, solar- and geothermal-energy development instead.

These and other emerging ideas not only can help end the region’s air-pollution health emergency, but they work synergistically to combat global warming and reduce dependence on fossil fuels from abroad. These strategies can eliminate traffic gridlock and rekindle community in a metropolis increasingly walled off along lines of class, race, and urban and suburban lifestyles.

Ultimately, though, the region must break its dependence on fossil fuel.

One solution is a massive move toward “zero-emissions technologies,” such as Schwarzenegger’s hydrogen-highway plan. It envisions building a network of hydrogen fueling stations that could be used to fill up cars that run on hydrogen and emit nothing but water vapor. The technology exists, but is unlikely to be deployed in a significant way for at least 10 or 15 years, automakers and environmentalists alike agree.

There are also questions about how the hydrogen will be produced. If it is made from natural gas or other finite fossil-fuel sources it may not do enough to clean up the air, much less help solve the problems of fossil-fuel dependence and global warming. The plan would allow two-thirds of the hydrogen to be made with fossil fuel. Making the hydrogen highway truly renewable will require massive solar- and wind-power systems to produce the clean motor fuel from water by splitting it into its constituent parts of hydrogen and oxygen with electricity.

“A day at the gas pump would pay for the first hundred hydrogen stations,” says Jason Mark, director of clean vehicle programs for the Union of Concerned Scientists. California motorists spend more than $100 million a day for gasoline. Yet, the $6.5 million state budget for the program this fiscal year will buy just three hydrogen fueling stations and 14 hydrogen-powered vehicles, even though the governor’s plan calls for 100 stations and 2,000 vehicles by 2010.

Leveling With the Public

As Los Angeles continues its struggle toward clean air, there will be triumphs and setbacks. Through it all, the AQMD and other smog-fighting agencies must adopt a policy of complete openness with the public they serve. People deserve to know the dangers they face in breathing the air, and what is being done to improve it. The map on page 24 is based on a 1999 AQMD study showing areas where more than 1,500 people out of a million are likely to develop cancer. That is all that the agency would tell the public when it released the map more than five years ago. Later, under pressure from environmental-justice activists, it grudgingly admitted that the actual risk was higher in some communities. But it did not reveal those communities, or give precise numbers.

Before I left the AQMD, disillusioned that progress on air pollution had ceased because of the encroachment of special interests, people holding the actual cancer-risk numbers at the agency told me that they could not provide this explosive information to the press and the public. I advised reporters to file a Public Records Act request. None did.

The agency cowered to pressure. I sat through meetings where representatives of powerful industries argued that the risk numbers were too uncertain to release and that they would cause undue alarm. The AQMD staff also had been severely pressured by city halls, legislators, boards of realtors and chambers of commerce after publicizing which communities had the highest levels of ozone pollution in Southern California. Realtors and chambers of commerce feared that property values would suffer. Never mind the children whose parents bought a house in those communities.

Finally, the AQMD released the specific numbers for this story in response to a Public Records Act request filed in August. Next year, the AQMD will update the cancer-risk report. The average cancer risk in the region determined in the 1999 study was about 1,000 per million people, meaning that up to 14,000 people living in greater Los Angeles can expect to get cancer simply through breathing.

“Those numbers are getting worse,” says former NRDC lawyer Ruderman Feuer. Many scientists and environmentalists expect the update to show the cancer risk has grown since 1999 because of the gathering cloud of diesel exhaust caused by the rush of international trade. Shipments through the region’s ports have doubled over the past seven years, and are projected to quadruple over the next 20 years.

It will be hard to reverse this trend, but we can start with small efforts. On a Thursday night, I walk through the farmers market near my neighborhood in South Pasadena, next to the Gold Line light-rail station. The heat of the summer day has died down as I stroll among the stalls. The corn, beans, lettuce and other produce sold here is mostly from the remaining nearby farms. It hasn’t been shipped halfway around the world in a refrigerated vessel or the hold of an airplane. Local farmers have hauled it in pickup trucks. People come home from work on the Gold Line — albeit in small numbers.

It may not seem like much in the giant metropolis that stretches beyond these few blocks. Yet it’s a scene increasingly replicated throughout Southern California. It shows that people want choices — public transit, locally produced goods, a sense of community — if only their leaders will provide them with the opportunity to get off the freeways and out of their cars. It shows people will still support local production of goods and produce rather than buy the cheapest goods imported from abroad under a trail of diesel soot.

Perhaps our leaders will do what’s needed so that the next generation of Southern Californians will breathe healthful air. Because of promises they have made and broken over the past three decades, my generation never will.


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