By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

Longtime residents of L.A. can see that the region's air is much cleaner today than it used to be. The ubiquitous brownish-orange pall that blanketed the city for months on end is now only an occasional occurrence. The number of Stage 1 smog alerts in the L.A. region has plummeted from 83 in 1985 to just one last year, and there hasn't been a Stage 2 alert since 1986. The worst smog alert is a Stage 3 (based on concentration of ozone), and there hasn't been one of those since 1974.

Yet L.A. still has the dirtiest air in the nation. It is the only region classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an "extreme non-attainment area."

How can this be?

The answer lies in a combination of natural and manmade conditions that have conspired to make the L.A. area one of the most efficient smog traps in the world.

Geographically, the Los Angeles area is a basin ringed by tall mountains on the north and east sides and open to sea breezes on the west. Dust and smoke particles from cars and factories get pushed toward the mountains and trapped there. The problem is most acute during the summer, when these particles react with the abundant sunlight to form low-level ozone, or smog. Also, during the summer months, there are few storms or strong winds to disperse the particles.

Smog is by no means a recent phenomenon for L.A. As far back as the 18th century, Spanish explorers and settlers reported seeing a haze from the campfires of Gabrielino Indians. Fifty years ago, smog from cars and factories was so pervasive that people often had to cover their faces just to go outside. That problem, especially the acute smog episodes just after World War II, led to the creation of the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District.

L.A.'s smog problems continued to worsen in the 1950s, 1960s and most of the 1970s as more people, factories and cars came to the basin. Even such steps as the banning of backyard trash incinerators in the '60s did little to stem the pollution. L.A. had become known throughout the world just as much for its smog as for its beaches and Hollywood.

The tide began to turn later that decade as highly polluting leaded gasoline began to be phased out, and the state ordered auto manufacturers to install catalytic converters on cars. Then the state Legislature reorganized the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District, giving it more teeth to enforce anti-pollution regulations on industry and expanding its jurisdiction to include all of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The new agency, known as the South Coast Air Quality Management District, passed reams of regulations placing strict limits on emissions from generators, spray booths and other industrial sources of pollution. By the end of the '80s, under its tough new Executive Officer James Lents, the AQMD became the government agency most feared by business with the possible exception of the IRS. Large aerospace companies and oil refineries staffed entire departments just to deal with AQMD regulations.

The AQMD did not stop with regulations on factories. Recognizing that at least half of all the smog in the region comes from cars, the agency in 1989 adopted a rule to reduce the number of solo drivers on the roads and freeways. Known as the rideshare rule, it required thousands of area companies to use financial incentives to lure their employees into carpools or onto public transportation.

But then came the recession, and with it, the devastation of the local aerospace industry and the region's manufacturing base. Businesses that were largely powerless to stop the ever-increasing regulations of the previous 20 years mobilized to fight AQMD regulations, especially the carpool rule, which they believed cost a lot of money to implement but did little to reduce actual pollution.

The AQMD's 12-member governing board turned over and a majority emerged that favored easing up regulations on business. Republicans came to power in Sacramento and threatened to take away the AQMD's control over its budget unless it lightened up on business. And last year, Lents was forced out of his post.

Throughout this period, the air quality has kept improving, especially after the introduction in 1994 of cleaner-burning gasoline. The air became noticeably cleaner and the numbers of smog alerts dropped dramatically. The improvements were largely the result of regulations passed years earlier, along with more favorable weather conditions.

But the region is far from licking its smog problem. The number of cars in the four-county region continues to increase; there are now nearly 10 million vehicles. Businesses are expanding once again and more people continue to pour into the region. Environmentalists and regulators say that unless tougher steps are taken, smog levels will begin to creep up again, not because individual cars and factories are polluting more, but from the sheer numbers. In fact, the U.S. EPA has sharply criticized the AQMD for downplaying the impacts of this future growth in its most recent pollution control plan.

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