Dispatches: News from the Field, November 1996
Though he's one of the leading experts on the infamous smog of Los Angeles, these days Akula Venkatram sounds more like the disgruntled and underappreciated Maytag repairman. "My expertise was not required," the University of Cailfornia-Riverside environmental engineering professor laments. "I haven't been made to feel very useful."
So last August, Venkatram decided to make a statement: Along with eight of the ten other distinguished academics on the South Coast Air Quality Management District's advisory council, he abruptly quit. Moreover, he blasted his former employers, stating that AQMD--widely regarded as the nation's most progressive antipollution agency--has begun to place the interests of smog-spewing industry above those of its oxygen-dependent citizenry. In their icy resignation letter, the departing scientists issued a pointed attack on the district's new direction, as divined from a near-final draft of AQMD's 1997 management plan. "The district," wrote the furious smognocenti, who say the plan was adopted entirely without their input, "is embarked on a course that will not lead to attainment of federal standards."
Sadly, the peeved scientists aren't alone in their harsh opinion. Mary Nichols, the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for air and radiation, says the AQMD plan "is purported to be based on science, but is at best misleading." Nichols, like the former advisory board members, is most troubled by AQMD's plan to close nearly 40 percent of the region's smog monitoring stations and to rely increasingly on an elaborate computer model that holds that by 2010, the L.A. Basin will be able to absorb an additional 140 tons of smog daily. "Computer models aren't enough," Nichols argues. "You still have to monitor."
Of course, no one is saying that southern California will soon vanish beneath a Blade Runnerlike gloom. But environmentalists worry that they have lost their most trusted ally in the fight to freshen Los Angeles's air, which is still the nation's worst. Since its 1977 inception, AQMD has helped cut the number of Stage One smog alerts (basically warnings against vigorous outdoor exercise) from 121 in 1977 to just 14 last year. Such strides are attributable to no-nonsense regulations that, not coincidentally, make captains of industry squirm, including rigid emissions limits for power plants. But recently the L.A. business community has begun to rebel. In January, for example, a coalition that included Hughes Electronics, McDonnell Douglas, and TRW Inc. convinced AQMD to shelve a proposal that would have curbed the use of "volatile organic products," such as those found in solvent-based paints, gasoline, and glue.
Perhaps industry's biggest coup, grieves Jane Hall, a California State University-Fullerton economist and one of the L.A. Nine, has been in winning sympathy for its cause. "There's a sense that controls are too expensive," says Hall, "and the district is now acting according to how it perceives the level of public support." Hall hopes that the mass resignation will stir AQMD to "wake up," but thus far the agency continues to doze. District spokesman Tom Eichhorn stubbornly stands by AQMD's computer model, boasting, "It's imperfect, but far better than looking into a crystal ball."
Seizing the analogy, AQMD's foes say their crystal balls yield a picture that is frighteningly clear. "Air pollution is now causing over 5,000 deaths in L.A. each year," the Natural Resources Defense Council's Joel Reynolds says, with Dickensian bleakness. "It appears the deaths will persist."