Los Angeles means many things to different people, but one thing the world can agree on is that the smog is downright awful. I remember every September back in elementary school, we had the dreaded “smog alerts” – the days when the teacher would sternly warn you to do as little outside as possible. Better yet, don’t go outside. You knew which days were the smog alert days because you could drive by the playgrounds during recess and it would look like a sand-tinted Silent Hill, the kids standing around like zombies, the basketball courts empty. Ah, life in the Valley.
Pop quiz: What month was the last smog alert? Trick question – it was in 1997. You heard right, as of this month’s upcoming annual report by the American Lung Association, we’re on the 10th anniversary of the L.A. metropolitan area – which includes Orange County, Riverside, and San Bernardino – failing to produce air quality bad enough for a smog alert. Not only that, but on last year’s list of the biggest ozone offenders in America, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside only placed fourth. Bakersfield was #1, in case you were wondering).
The desmogification of Los Angeles is one of our state’s biggest accomplishments of the 20th century – on a national scale, even. “Desmogification? Daswhack!” you say.
On any given summer day, you can drive up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory and will barely be able to make out the skyscrapers downtown. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, however, has been tackling the air quality problem since way back in 1945. Even then, before we knew what smog was, the air was so bad that visibility dropped to only three blocks during the summer. The headline of the Los Angeles Times from July 27, 1943 reads, “City Hunting for Source of Gas Attack.”
Still not impressive enough? Chew on this: You know how many smog alerts there were in 1990? Twenty-six. And ten years before that? 102. A third of the days in the year.
Now consider that 700,000 more people – the entire population of San Francisco – have moved to L.A. since 1980, according to the U.S. Census. If this doesn’t impress you, you’re probably either comatose or an Eye Hate God roadie. Or both.
One should also look at the impact of these findings on you and me. Us Amurricans, we likes our cars, our oil refineries, and especially our coal-powered plants. Even here in the Golden State, the California Energy Commission estimates that coal gives us 56 percent of our energy.
Alas, the Southland suffers additionally from a cruel practical joke played by Mother Nature. That warm, rain-free climate means all the particles in the air that get trapped in by the surrounding mountains don’t get washed away. Most of the air blows east into the Inland Empire rather than west towards the ocean, like up in the Bay Area. Some joke, huh Chino? Like having your car’s exhaust pipe placed in the front of the car instead of the back.
But perhaps that’s proven to not be such a bad thing – it forced the city to take action when Rachel Carson was still in a jumper. And 60 years of research equals 60 years for other cities to learn by example of what will and won’t work.
Getting rid of the smog alert is only the beginning, however. In case you haven’t noticed, the smog, uh, still sucks. While the state of California has significantly reduced automotive emissions, what about all of those chemical plants and refineries in the South Bay? Why hasn’t more been done about them? Send your thank you notes to our much-loved president. Or what about ocean liners? According to South Coast Air Quality Management District, over 60 percent of Santa Barbara’s air quality problems come from traffic in the Channel – not on the 101. Imagine what must be happening in Long Beach.
Think about that on Earth Day next Sunday.