County Air Quality Better, But Still Gets F

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April 28, 2010

Once again, Ventura County scored an F.

The county's failing grade appeared on the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2010 report card, which was released Wednesday. In fact, most of the state did badly, with 91 percent of Californians living in counties with failing air quality standards.

Many California cities and counties topped the nation's list as having the most polluted air. Los Angeles scored No. 1 on the ozone list and Bakersfield was No. 1 on both the short-term and annual particle-pollution lists.

Short-term particle pollution measures harmful pollution over a 24-hour period.

Ventura County has scored an F all 11 years the American Lung Association has been issuing the report. But Mike Villegas, executive officer of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, said the grade should be put in context.

"A lot of the problem is that the federal government made standards more stringent," he said. "What the 'F' doesn't tell you is that air quality has continued to improve over time."

The Environmental Protection Agency standard for ground-level ozone is 75 parts per billion, which the county on average exceeded 160 days a year in the 1970s. In 2009, the county exceeded that level on only 25 days.

"What's remarkable is this improvement has occurred while the population has doubled," Villegas said.

Ventura County's population was 417,000 in 1973. In 2009, it was 836,000.

Villegas said problems the county faces include transportation, weather and topography, including inland valleys that can drive smog production. It's especially a problem in areas such as Simi Valley and Ojai, which develop ground-level ozone that can get trapped during hot weather.

"If you get stagnant weather in the summer, you get an inversion layer that acts like a lid on those valleys," he said.

Ozone is an extremely reactive gas molecule that is an ingredient of smog. Ozone is formed by chemical reactions in the atmosphere from gases emitted from tailpipes, smokestacks and other sources.

Ozone reacts chemically with lung tissue, which makes it harmful to breathe.

The county's pollution sources also include agricultural businesses and the diesel transport and farm equipment that goes with it, Villegas said. On the positive side, he said, the county has two of the cleanest power plants in the nation near Ormond Beach and Mandalay Bay.

Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director with the American Lung Association in California, said the state has a high level of pollution from vehicle emissions, on- and off-road diesel engines, oil refineries, power plants and residential wood-burning. California's large population also is a factor, she said.

"We have a lot of people in dense, urban areas," she said. "Half of the trade in the U.S. comes into California ports. Then it gets trucked and shipped."

People like to live here because of the weather, she said, but the wealth of sunlight is conducive to ozone formulation. The state also has regular wildfires and unique terrain, Holmes-Gen said, especially around Bakersfield.

"The Central Valley is a big bowl surrounded by mountains and it tends to trap the air," she said. "In L.A., we have a similar situation with mountains surrounding part of the L.A. basin."

For the first time this year, the American Lung Association identified low-income residents as being especially at risk for exposure to air pollution. The State of the Air report points to a 2008 study by Johns Hopkins University showing that low socioeconomic status increased the likelihood of premature death from fine particle pollution among 13.2 million Medicare recipients.

"They tend to live closer to the pollution sources," said Janice Nolen, the Lung Association's assistant vice president for National Policy and Advocacy. "Or the sources (of pollution) move into the neighborhood, because housing is cheaper, or they're by major, busy highways."

The State of the Air report did find pollution overall has improved since the association began issuing the reports 11 years ago, but there's still a lot of room to improve, Nolen said.

The association is calling for Congress to pass the Clean Air Act Amendments of 2010, which would cut emissions from coal-fired power plants.

In 2008, the California Air Resources Board adopted regulations to reduce on-road diesel emissions. The board is currently considering ways to help truckers and other diesel operators meet those standards in a tough economy, according to information officer Karen Caesar. The board will meet again in September to discuss those options, she said.

The federal government is raising the bar for air quality again, Villegas said, so Ventura County will have to work even harder to raise its failing grade.

"There are ways the public's personal choices are a factor," he said. "Use an electric lawn mower, car pool, use a gas grill, purchase a hybrid vehicle."