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Bay Area Air Quality Deteriorating, EPA Says

Local agencies have so far failed to produce an acceptable smog reduction plan

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Susan Reyes has lived in eastern Contra Costa County all her life. She was born and raised in Pittsburg; she now lives in Antioch and works in San Ramon. But despite the many ties she has here, she's often thought of leaving the area, moving to somewhere far away, like Arizona. That's because she's asthmatic, and Contra Costa's eastern valleys and canyons are some of the worst places to live if you've got respiratory difficulties. On hot days, when car exhaust and refinery emissions from all around the Bay Area are activated by sunlight to form smog, which is then blown by ocean breezes east until it hits the hills, Reyes can see her asthma attacks coming from miles away. "I get to where I'm not able to fill up my lungs," she says. "It's like being suffocated. That's just a really horrible feeling."The Bay Area doesn't have the nation's smoggiest air; in fact, we're number fourteen on the EPA list of trouble spots. And our air quality has been improving, so that it's no longer as bad as it was in the '70s and '80s. But we're still not meeting federal EPA standards, and we're one of a handful of metropolitan areas that missed deadlines to clean up our act. Last year, we suffered three bad-air days, when smog levels topped EPA safety levels. Compare that to the Clean Air Act's guidelines, which allows a metropolitan area to have three bad-air days over three years. We've had fourteen bad-air days over the past three years: three in 1999 and eight in 1998.

Our lousy score meant we missed the November 15, 2000 deadline to clean up the air, and environmentalists argue that it also means local government agencies are not doing enough to protect our health. Apparently the EPA agrees with the latter critique, as it's expected to reject the body of a clean-air plan drawn up by local government agencies. And that means our transportation funding will be monitored until a new plan is approved by the EPA.

And the future looks as murky as that smog cushioned against the hills, because it's only going to get harder to stay on the right side of air standards--the Supreme Court just okayed the stricter standards EPA scientists say are necessary for public safety. Add in court challenges to the state's emission-reduction program and the possibility that dirty back-up diesel generators will be used to generate energy this summer, and we're likely to be looking at even more smog on the horizon.


Smog is primarily composed of ground-level ozone--which, unlike stratospheric ozone, is harmful to human health. Ozone is created when the chemicals emitted by factories (volatile organic compounds--VOCs) and vehicles (nitrogen oxides--NOX) mix together and then are activited by the sun's warmth. Those same emissions then rise up to mix with others, forming clouds of smog that drift across the entire area. Eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties--especially the tri-valley cities of Pleasanton, Livermore, and Concord--bear the brunt of the smog that becomes trapped in the pockets of the hills.

The tri-valley area is also seeing some of the region's most rapid growth. New residents of those eastern subdivisions should be prepared for scratchy throats, watering eyes, and irritated noses, says allergist Dr. Dave Denmead; for those with asthma or emphysema, the conditions can be hazardous. "[Smog] can cause these patients to have significantly increased symptoms--increased cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and poor tolerance of everyday activities," Denmead explains. "It could result in having to go to the hospital. And, of course, the elderly who have emphysema are even more impacted."

"Controlling refinery VOCs has two benefits," explains Richard Drury, legal director for Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment. "There's an immediate benefit to the folks who live near it, and a regional benefit because then it wouldn't cause as much smog." Drury argues that much more could be done to halt toxic emissions from power plants and refineries. "About half the VOCs from refineries are fugitives--leaks," he says. "There are millions of pounds of leaking stuff, which come from where the pipes join together. Simply requiring refineries to tighten those leaks with a wrench, or installing leakless valves, would reduce as much as half of refinery VOCs. This is required elsewhere in the country, but it's not required in the current Bay Area plan."

Drury's group is one of several environmentalist organizations that submitted suggestions--like requiring leakless valves--to the three agencies who have the power to regulate factories: the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). In 1999, these three groups were required to draw up what's called an "Ozone Attainment Plan" to show the EPA how the region was going to come into compliance with Clean Air Act standards. At that time, the Bay Area was the first region in the country to have experienced a dramatic switch in the air--we had, in fact, once been designated as an "attainment" area, meaning that we had met the EPA standards in the early '90s. But those years of good air turned out to be a fluke, perhaps because of cooling El Niño weather or because of a drop in driving after the 1989 earthquake. In 1995 and 1996--two years of hot summers--ozone levels went back up, and environmentalists pressured the EPA to recognize the area's growing problem. Eventually, we were redesignated a "nonattainment area," which meant BAAQMD, ABAG, and MTC had to produce a plan.


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