Bay Area Air Quality Deteriorating, EPA Says 

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

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.


Environmentalists joined the effort. While Drury's group focused on ways to reduce factory emissions, the Sierra Club concentrated on the other half of ozone-producing emissions: those from motor vehicles. "For years and years we've been depending on tighter [state] emissions standards to take care of that, and they haven't done it," says Sierra Club transportation chief John Holtzclaw. "We suggested discouraging motor vehicle use by encouraging smart growth and mixed-use developments. Our society subsidizes driving substantially, with things like free parking at work. We recommended programs like a parking cash-out, where employers pay employees for not driving, so the company could use that land for other uses."

But the 1999 plan did little to incorporate the suggestions of environmentalists, nor did it explain why the changes weren't included. "If there's something someone suggests and they're not applying it, they need to analyze why," says Deborah Jordan, associate director of the EPA's local air division. That their suggestions were ignored must seem especially galling to environmentalists now that it's become clear that the 1999 plan did not clean up the air. When a group called Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund brought suit, pointing out that the EPA had missed its deadline to respond to the plan, the EPA responded by announcing that it was likely to disapprove the document. "The plan has been in effect for a year and a half, and we've had a half-dozen violations and missed an attainment deadline," says Earthjustice lead attorney Deborah Reames. "This suit was just to compel the EPA to act."

The three agencies aren't likely to challenge the EPA's disapproval; they're already working on revisions that will be ready in draft form by early May. But officials argue that there was little they could have done better back in 1999--and some of those limitations are still in place. "Our analytical tools for estimating how much we need to reduce emissions are not very sophisticated," explains BAAQMD Planning and Transportation Manager Jean Roggenkamp. Plus, she adds, "planning is not a static process." This means that revisions to the Ozone Attainment Plan will need to be reevaluated in 2003, the year when data from an important central California ozone study will be available. "We'll be able to do a photochemical model to cook the emissions and see where they blow and what the concentrations are," she says. "Do we contribute to Sacramento's air pollution? How much interplay is there among the regions?"

Roggenkamp also points out that some environmentalists' suggestions are outside her agency's jurisdiction--for example, she says, "It used to be that we had a regulation that said employers had to encourage employees not to drive alone to work, but a state law got passed that said we couldn't do that anymore." MTC's Air Quality Planner David Tannehill also defends the 1999 plan by pointing out that the hot weather that leads to smog is hard to predict.

Once the EPA's new standards are in place, we'll have a harder time. Instead of allowing .12 parts per million average concentration of ozone measured in one-hour stretches, the new standards will limit concentrations to .08 parts per million, measured in eight-hour stretches. "Based on historical data, we would be exceeding the eight-hour standard a few more times a year," says Earthjustice research associate Stanley Yung. For now, no one is trying to meet the new standards, and the EPA will not require the new plan to take them into account.

Another potential change that won't be incorporated in the new plan has to do with the state's emissions-reduction plan. The California Air Resources Board sets low-emissions mandates, requiring automakers to balance the number of gas-guzzling SUVs they sell with at least a handful of more efficient vehicles such as hybrid gas-electric cars. But this program has been consistently reduced over the past decade under pressure from auto makers. Now General Motors has sued the Air Board, protesting that it can't produce the reduced number of zero-emissions vehicles--4,650 by 2003--called for in the plan. If this pressure succeeds in further weakening the mandate, the numbers used by planners to model expected emissions reductions could be off. "There's a lot of uncertainty about those numbers, so we should have more emission reductions built in," says Yung. "These automobile emission reductions models have a long history of not turning out as hopefully as we think."


And then there's the energy crisis. Environmentalists warn that power plants are a source of smog-producing chemicals, and adding new plants could worsen the situation. On the other hand, new plants often use improved technology that is substantially cleaner than the old; even more importantly, new plants could help prevent the need for backup diesel generators that click on to keep hospitals and other emergency services running. "When we go to diesel generators, we're talking about dirt," says the Sierra Club's Holtzclaw. "Insofar as new power plants could reduce the need to use the back-ups, we support them." And Earthjustice's Yung adds, "The days we're most likely to exceed ozone standards are also the hottest--and that's when we'll run into power outages and have to use diesel." On the other hand, smaller "peaker plants" are now being approved, and these have lower environmental standards to meet; three have been proposed for the Contra Costa hills, with a larger, non-peaker plant also in the works in Hayward. "It's not smart to put these plants in a place that is already failing to attain federal air standards," says Drury.

Environmentalists increasingly are turning to the courts. Another suit against MTC has been filed by Earthjustice, arguing that the agency has failed to increase transit ridership by the fifteen percent promised in 1982. And BAAQMD is under fire from another group for allegedly allowing a backlog of 1,275 emissions citations against oil refineries to build up. "The agencies charged with protecting public health are dropping the ball," Yung says. "It's disturbing that it takes litigation to get them to do their job."

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