How decades of L.A. smog led to California’s war with Trump over car pollution

Source: By Reis Thebault, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, September 23, 2019

A view of Los Angeles in 1958. (AP)
A view of Los Angeles in 1958. (AP)
In 1953, there were no San Gabriel Mountains — at least not that Lee Begovich could see.When the 24-year-old kindergarten teacher moved from Chicago to Southern California that year, Los Angeles was choked with smog — eye-burning, lung-stinging, headache-inducing smog. It hung so thick in the air that it often limited visibility to mere miles for months on end.

So when Begovich looked northeast from her Compton classroom, the Los Angeles topography faded into a gauzy haze, like peering into the smoke-filled backrooms of the era’s bars. But one day that fall, the wind blew hard; it cleared out the intractable smog. For the first time in her life, Begovich saw the outline of the San Gabriel Mountains. She was stunned, she remembered 66 years later.

You wouldn’t hear that story today, said Ann Carlson, Begovich’s daughter and an environmental law professor at UCLA. For the past two decades, the air has been far cleaner. Now, in most panoramic photographs of the city, the mountains sit atop its skyline like a crown.

“People don’t realize just how bad it was and how much better it is today,” said Carlson, who’s writing a book on the region’s history of air pollution.

The city and the state have made extraordinary progress in the past half century, and it’s largely because of California’s ability under the Clean Air Act to curb dangerous emissions from the biggest polluters around: automobiles.

But this week, President Trump said he would revoke California’s ability to set its own auto emissions standards, a provision that gave the most populous state significant sway over the car industry.

On Friday, California and 22 other states responded, filing a lawsuit that challenged his decision to revoke the waver, which is rooted in Los Angeles’s smoggy past. Trump’s move enraged environmentalists and residents who knew just how far that exception had allowed the city to come.

The Bay of Smoke

In 1542, a group of Spanish explorers gave a prophetic nickname to the land that would later become Los Angeles. A pair of ships, flying the flag of Spain and carrying onboard a couple hundred soldiers, merchants, and Native American and African slaves, sailed along the coast of Southern California until they neared present-day Long Beach, where a cloud hung low over the mainland.

“Baya de los Fumos,” they called it. The Bay of Smoke.

The smoke probably came from the fires burning in the Tongva tribe’s Los Angeles basin settlements, Carlson said. The Spaniards didn’t know it then, but they had seen the earliest signs of a problem that would plague the region for centuries.

With mountains on three sides and an ocean on the fourth, the region’s geography forms a bowl that pens in polluted air, Carlson said. For most of the year, an inversion layer of warm air acts as a lid atop it, trapping the cooler air and pollution below. It is the perfect petri dish for smog.

Then came the refineries, the smokestacks, the cars.

By the 20th century, the basin was besieged — in 1943, some Angelenos thought, literally.

One July day that year, a heavy yellow-brown cloud fell over the city, said Beth Gardiner, author of “Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.” It smelled like bleach.

“People really panicked,” Gardiner said. “They freaked out. It was the middle of World War II, and people thought it was a Japanese gas attack.”

Indeed, the Los Angeles Times even called it a “gas attack,” writing: “Visibility was cut to less than three blocks. … Workers found the fumes almost unbearable.”

That was just the beginning.

For years, Gardiner said, scientists couldn’t figure out what exactly was causing the smog. Sure, there were plenty of emissions in the area, but nothing that looked quite like that noxious pall.

“It was this mystery,” she said. “It’s very obvious to us now that it came from cars, but they didn’t understand that at the time.”

‘A desperate situation’

In 1950, Arie Haagen-Smit, a professor of bio-organic chemistry at California Institute of Technology, isolated smog’s main components — nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, seasoned with sunlight — and identified cars as the main culprits. He became known as Arie Haagen-Smog.

By then, Los Angeles was already the car capital of America.

“L.A. was the place car culture was born,” Gardiner said.

As the population boomed, suburban bedroom communities sprung up around the city. The sprawl made cars a necessity, said Mike Holland, the Los Angeles city archivist.

“As the population grew, there were more cars and there was more pollution, more roadways and more gas stations,” Holland said. “Smog, of course, was always one of the end results.”

The oil and auto industry vociferously challenged Haagen-Smit’s research, attempting to smear and discredit him, yet he kept churning out studies showing smog started in tailpipes.

In 1953, the same year Begovich first saw the San Gabriel range, Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson declared, “We are in a desperate situation, and drastic steps must be taken.”

Poulson had an uprising on his hands.

There were roughly 2 million cars on Los Angeles roads then. As smog filled the air, angry residents filled local meetings. They came wearing gas masks and toting their children — also wearing gas masks. They held signs that said, “Smog has changed San Gabriel Valley to Death Valley,” and they held a party marking over two decades of smog: an “unhappy birthday,” complete with a cake adorned in a skull and crossbones.

During one acrid stretch in 1954, the air was a “contributing factor” in the death of a 10-year-old girl, who choked on the smog, the New York Times reported then.

The county government responded with some early attempts to regulate the pollution, Carlson said, but it was nearly impossible to control vehicles that moved freely across local and state boundaries.

Sacramento intervened in 1959 and set up the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board, which later became the Air Resources Board, and set the first ozone limit: 150 parts per billion of the pollutant in a cubic meter of air, more than double today’s federal standard.

Carlson’s research on early ozone monitoring data — which wasn’t as reliable it is today — shows staggering levels of pollution.

In the mid-1950s, levels reached 900 parts per billion, nearly double the amount that triggered the most serious smog alert, halting nonessential driving and industrial activity. The region recorded dozens of those serious alerts in the latter half of the decade, Carlson found.

This public health crisis sent people to the hospital and forced them to miss work, she said. It was less apparent then, but we know now that ozone exposure causes asthma, harms the central nervous system and the lungs, and increases cardiovascular disease.

‘An invisible achievement’

So began the pattern of California setting the tone for pollution regulation in the United States.

“California has always played this role of dragging the rest of the country along behind it,” Gardiner said.

In the 1960s, Washington tried to catch up, passing several air pollution laws. In 1967, Congress — in defiance of auto industry lobbyists — codified California’s ability to set stricter emissions standards than the federal government. The state’s bipartisan delegation had argued that because California’s problem was so severe and its regulations so advanced, it should be allowed to go its own way. The waiver was born.

It was then reaffirmed three years later with the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, during what Carlson called “the most important year in U.S. air pollution history.” It was the first time the government set limits on the pernicious pollutants that were sickening Los Angeles — ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, she said.

The catalytic converter was next.

Widely viewed as one of the most consequential environmental inventions, the device controlled car exhaust emissions. Incompatible with leaded gasoline, it also eliminated the use of the harmful fuel.

California began requiring the technology in all cars manufactured in 1975 and later. Again, the state dragged the country along. Because California — then as now — made up such a large share of the car market, its standards became de facto national requirements, as automakers refused to manufacture cars with varied specifications.

Over the years, the air began to clear. The number of severe smog days dwindled. A 1985 headline in The Washington Post announced, “Los Angeles Smog Alerts Decreasing; Pollution Rules Breathe New Life Into Ailing Atmosphere.”

Today, Southern California and the state’s Central Valley still have some of the most unhealthy air in the United States, but it’s far better than it was.

“If you look back at the history and the 50 years of progress that Californians have made, and that the United States has made, it really does show you how effective this kind of regulation can be,” Gardiner said.

Yet, it’s an achievement that often goes unappreciated, she said — one of the reasons, perhaps, that the Trump administration feels it can do away with the waiver that made this progress possible.

“It’s an extraordinary achievement, but it’s an invisible achievement,” Gardiner said. “No one ever thinks about it. None of us ever appreciate clean air.”

But if Begovich, now 90 years old, could stand outside her Compton classroom today, it’d be obvious to her. She could look to the northeast and see unmistakable peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains. She wouldn’t have to squint into the haze and wonder what was beyond, just out of sight.