Smog 'Pockets' Target of AQMD Officials

Staff Reporter

Everybody knows that Los Angeles has some of the worst air in the nation. Then there's the air that Jesse Marquez has to breathe in Wilmington.

Despite decades of improvement in the region's air quality, nearly every weekday a brownish-red pall still grows over that harbor community.

Marquez, a 51-year-old electrician and father of three, has lived there his entire life, collecting an assortment of respiratory ailments along the way. "You can actually smell it," he said. "I personally drive with my air conditioning on all the time. That way it's at least filtering the air."

Wilmington is the worst of the worst, thanks to the three major freeways, the nation's largest port complex and six oil refineries that either inhabit or skirt the community not to mention scores of industrial sites spewing a brew of toxic chemicals.

And it's not the only pocket of extra-toxic smog in the L.A. region.

For a variety of reasons, brown patches blanket communities in southeast Los Angeles, such as South Gate, those near downtown Los Angeles, LAX and the City of Industry, and San Bernardino and other Inland Empire cities.

Not surprisingly, L.A.'s smoggiest communities are often inhabited by low-income and minority residents. After years of complaints, air quality officials are now considering a host of proposed regulations aimed at improving air quality in the worst places.

Marquez said two of his three adult children had such severe asthma when they were young that they would have to be admitted to the hospital in order to be stabilized. He developed asthma as an adult. "It's only been over the last five years," he said. "I also have sinusitis it's like having a stuck nose all the time."

Elaine Chang, deputy executive officer for planning at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, acknowledges the problem. "We would like to see more stringent requirements," Chang said. "We have heard from community members, 'What are you going to do about it?' "

The AQMD's narrowly targeted regulations, which would come six years after the district first started looking at issues of "environmental justice," would be a first for the state.

The proposals have stirred up debate and opposition from several business and industry groups, but environmentalists say they are long overdue, given the heightening concerns about the health effects of pollution.

"We want the pollution to be reduced," said Bahram Fazeli, a policy analyst with Communities for a Better Environment, a leading environmental justice group based in Huntington Park.

Toxic mapping

There is a growing body of evidence to support the claims that some communities suffer more than others from the cumulative effects of various pollution sources.

Six years ago as part of its environmental justice initiative, the AQMD decided to conduct a study evaluating the cancer risk from air pollution throughout the greater Los Angeles region.

Completed three years ago, the landmark study found that while residents in places like Malibu had as little as a 300 in 1 million chance of developing cancer from regional air pollution, those in the most-impacted communities had a risk approaching or exceeding 2,000 in 1 million.

That and other studies also have showed diesel exhaust from the region's massive freeway system accounted for 70 percent of the overall risk of cancer. The region had an average cancer risk of 1,400 in 1 million.

Additional research showed a direct connection between bad air and poor health, including one noting an increase in hospital admissions for respiratory problems on smoggy days. Another showed that children who grow up amid the dirtiest air have reduced lung function.

"There is a whole body of evidence," said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

Last month, the district's governing board directed its staff to start drafting rules that would reduce air pollution in the worst communities, based on a policy paper produced this past summer by the agency along with representatives of community, environmental and business groups.

Among the proposals were regulations that would ratchet down emissions from both large and small polluters near schools, hospitals and similar facilities; cutting emissions from yard hostelers at the ports and distribution facilities; and further limiting emissions of specific toxins, such as chromium, used in metal-plating facilities.

Many of the rules would limit emissions not just near communities with the worst air but any place where industry is close to residences. The idea is that by targeting such emissions, industry-loaded communities, such as Wilmington, will benefit the most.

Industry opposition

While business and industry groups admit to the disparity in air quality, there is sharp disagreement on how to approach the problem, even among members of the district's working group that produced the policy paper.

These groups note that even in the communities with the dirtiest air, sources like trucks, trains, planes and ships account for 90 percent of the pollution; "stationary sources," such as refineries, metal-plating businesses and body shops, account for the remaining 10 percent.

With the AQMD having only limited authority to regulate trucks and other mobile sources an authority largely reserved for the state and federal governments it says the district is largely attacking the wrong source.

"By having the focus on stationary sources, that is really not addressing the cumulative impacts of pollution, because of the absence of mobile sources," said Bill LaMarr, president of the Small Business Alliance, a consortium of manufacturer, metal plating and other industry trade groups.

Another criticism of the AQMD's approach is that it targets polluters near all schools and residential areas, rather than only those in the most polluted communities.

"The proximity of a (polluter) next to a school is a classic example. If you have a school in the desert and there is a facility nearby, then its emissions would be ratcheted down," said William Quinn, vice president for the California Council for Economic and Environmental Balance and another member of the working group.

Air quality officials say the proposals sketched out in the policy paper will be further refined before substantive proposals to the air district's board next year. They also say that pollution occurring close to residences poses a significant threat.

Moreover, air district officials plans to call on both the state and federal government to assist them in cutting pollution from trucks and other mobile sources, something that must occur anyway if the region is to meet federal Clean Air Act standards by 2010.

Meantime, residents of hard-hit communities say that something needs to be done now, even if it only has limited success.

"A lot of times people come into the neighborhood and their eyes start burning and they don't know why," said Angelo Logan, 36, who recently moved out of his Commerce neighborhood, which is near a freeway, rail yards, lead smelters, chemical-manufacturing plants and other industry.

"I was exposed to it since I was born and thought it was ordinary," he said.

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