LOS ANGELES — Don’t expect the smog jokes to stop anytime soon, but Southern California has made significant progress toward fighting air pollution – especially in the last five years.
In 1995, air in Los Angeles County was rated unhealthful 28 percent of the time under the Pollution Standards Index. That fell to 5 percent last year.
“The decline has been very abrupt,” said Dave Jesson, the Environmental Protection Agency’s local liaison.
“I don’t think any area has shown such a completely dramatic reduction.”
One reason is that no region of the country has had as far to go as Los Angeles.
The air basin is still years away from losing its federal designation as the nation’s only “extreme nonattainment area” for ozone, which triggers respiratory problems as it fouls city skylines.
The basin also is about to miss a federal deadline for meeting carbon monoxide standards, and will have a particularly difficult time meeting standards for dust and soot if the EPA wins a court fight with industry groups to tighten them.
But gains so far have given regulators confidence that the pollution rules they’ve created are working.
“We can finally see blue skies at the end of the tunnel,” said Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “We’re clearly on the downhill side of the slope.”
The district and its statewide counterpart, the Air Resources Board, have created a host of rules over the years mandating reformulated gasoline, cleaner-burning motor vehicles and industrial facilities and water-based paints and solvents, among other things.
Their rules have been the strictest in the country, and have led to the Los Angeles area giving up the title of the nation’s smoggiest city to Houston for the last two years.
But both cities’ ozone levels remain far ahead of the rest of the country.
“Number 1 or Number 2, we still have a lot work to do,” said Todd Campbell, policy director for the Clean Air Coalition, a Los Angeles-based environmental group.
He said that point was emphasized by a study published last month in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine that found the lungs of children grow more slowly in smoggy areas.