Smog Makes L.A. Comeback

After years of being held at bay, smog is making a comeback in Los Angeles. And for the first time in five years, authorities have issued a first stage smog alert warning people in some areas of unhealthy levels of ozone in the air.

"Our air pollution control program is not improving our local air quality at the same pace it had done in the previous five to 10 years," says Barry Wallerstein, director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California.

With a recent heat wave cooking Los Angeles, the mountains ringing the area have trapped air that contains high levels of the dangerous chemical ozone. It has been high in the resort areas around Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains.

The blame is being placed on increased sources of pollution, both regulated and unregulated. There are more people, more cars, and more sport utility vehicles, which meet a lesser standard of pollution control.

Added to the mix are the less controlled or uncontrolled polluters. Among them are diesel engines of every variety, from farm equipment to old trucks and power generators. Train engines belch black smoke, jet engines contribute, and a surprising source is ships in the busy ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles that burn low-grade oil.

"You have 16 ships that come into the harbor, they're going to pollute as much as a million cars on the road, and they're not being regulated," said Todd Campbell, policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air. Campbell spoke standing in front of Burbank City Hall, where smog obscured the view of mountains behind him. "I think we're definitely heading into a crisis."

Bad Air Days Nationwide

Improved technology, particularly on automobiles, had brought steady progress controlling smog. The number of unhealthy air quality days in the Los Angeles basin dropped from more than 200 in 1978, leveling out to less than 50 in the year 2000. But then the number of bad air days began to climb.

Los Angeles is not alone. Across the country, hot weather this summer has collided with the longer-term trend of increased air pollution. Ozone has reached unhealthy levels in the New York/New Jersey area, Kansas City, and Houston, to name a few. Denver, a city that has made great strides against smog in the past 25 years, is slipping a little.

"I'm not sure that we're headed back toward the bad old days, but we've certainly have had the highest levels of ozone that we have recorded in the last 10 years to 15 years. So it's not a good indication for us," said Steve Arnold of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "About a third to a fourth of our emissions come from automobile in the Denver area. We're driving some 55- to 60 million miles in a day. That means we burn 2- to 2 ½ million gallons of gasoline."

No Easy Fix

The solutions may not be easy. Authorities are looking for new technologies to control pollution, and new pollution sources to regulate. They are looking at everything from ships to lawn mowers to local dry cleaners.

In Los Angeles, Robert Wyman of the Regulatory Flexibility Group, an industry coalition, says more attention needs to be paid to old cars.

"We've spent 50 years paying attention to manufacturing plants and to new cars and engines." he said. "The old cars are probably the worst contributors to the smog today. Something like less than 20 percent of the motor vehicles cause 80 percent of the emissions from that sector."