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Energy crisis, summer heat likely to bring filthy air

By Dana Bartholomew Staff Writer

Smog -- the hidden price of California's energy crisis -- will worsen this summer and Los Angeles likely will reclaim its standing as the city with the worst air in the nation. Air quality officials said running power plants full time and increased use of diesel generators to keep factories and large businesses operating during blackout periods will worsen the smog problem.

If the extra generating plant emissions combine with an abnormally hot summer, Los Angeles will likely see its worst air quality in years.

Under those conditions, people "could see hazier-looking air and they might see more days over the health standards," said Bill Kelly, spokesman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar.

The AQMD predicts Los Angeles could suffer its first Stage I smog alerts since 1998. Such alerts advise all residents to avoid rigorous exercise and for those with heart and lung diseases to stay indoors.

"In certain places in our area, particularly east, under certain weather conditions, there could be a noticeable impact on people," Kelly said.

Blame the state's energy crisis. The Southland's 14 power plants have worked full steam ahead since January to assist the state energy crisis. They've spewed 2,045 tons of nitrogen oxides in three months -- more than double the smog-inducing emissions from the same time last year, according to preliminary AQMD reports.

Emissions from the region's 350 smokestack industries are also up.

This summer may be even worse, clean-air guardians say, as power plants are expected to run every turbine to juice the state's beleaguered energy grid. As many as 5,000 factory diesel generators may also rumble to life to counter more than 30 days of expected blackouts.

Where such stationary generators once ran an hour a month for testing and were limited to 200 hours a year, the air district has extended the limit to 500 hours to help alleviate the energy crisis. Pollution from such generators, said AQMD Executive Officer Barry R. Wallerstein, is 100 times that of a power plant.

Los Angeles could be king of the air pollution, a distinction it shed last year to Houston.

"If it weren't for the electricity crisis -- and I am not a man who generally likes to wager -- I would have said that we weren't going to take the pollution crown back from Houston," Wallerstein said this week during an interview at the Daily News.

Now, he said, "I'm a little bit more nervous."

Critics worry that lax standards for power plants and the liberal use of the area's diesel generators will erode public health. Nitrogen oxides are blamed for causing lung-searing smog. Diesel soot, a carcinogen, is blamed for stunting lung capacity in children.

"L.A. smog -- the relaxation of pollution standards because of the energy crisis, will have an effect on public health," said Andrea Van Hook, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of Los Angeles County. "It is a concern of the association because NOx and particulate matter can trigger asthma attacks in people who have asthma."

Weather will be key.

Sunlight and nitrogen oxide mix to make smog, and though national climatologists predict a slight chance of a hotter-than-normal summer that could lead to more smog, local meteorologists said the crystal ball is murky.

"It's sort of like the stock market," said National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Hilgendorf, based in Oxnard. "Current trends are no indication of future progress."

But the prospect of higher air pollution is a setback to the air district, which appears likely to stumble short of its 10-year goal to cut industrial emissions in half by 2003 to comply with federal clean air laws.

Vehicles contribute 87 percent of the 882 tons of smog-inducing emissions produced in Los Angeles each day. Industry produces 13 percent, of which 3 percent was caused by power plants last summer, according to the AQMD.

Just doubling power plant waste to 6 percent, even with the installation of catalytic converters on most plants before midsummer, could tip the balance into unhealthy air, regulators say.

"We expect that the power plants will operate even more than they did last summer with increased demand from air conditioners," said Carol Coy, deputy executive officer of the AQMD program to reduce industrial smog. "We think they're going to have to run the 'peakers' (portable generators) this summer -- and they're enormous polluters."

The agency's Regional Clear Air Incentives Market, or RECLAIM program, was once hailed as a business-friendly model to cut industrial emissions.

But the program has come under attack for reducing emissions only 19 percent in seven years. The air district seeks an additional 40 percent reduction by 2003.

The system allowed smokestack industries such as power plants to buy and sell smog "credits." Those that cut emissions could transfer pollution rights to other companies as smog targets were gradually reduced.

But critics say the system allowed many companies to forestall installing pollution control equipment. And when the energy crunch hit last year, power plants purchased most of the credits and sent prices soaring.

Businesses paying through the nose for energy are now digging in their heels at being told to install pricey pollution control systems at the forefront of a possible recession.

"Our take is that stationary (emissions) sources have always received the brunt of regulation," said California Manufacture and Technology Association spokesman Gino DiCaro. "Maybe we'd better go after mobile sources" such as cars and trucks.

The association, with more than half of its 800 industrial members based in the Los Angeles area, has been quietly pushing for the right to use diesel generators as a safeguard against blackouts.

"But diesel is a dirty word right now," DiCaro said. "Nobody wants to talk about it. These diesel generators can get us through the summer."

The air district board will meet on May 11 to rule on a proposal to take power plants out of the RECLAIM system to lesson the price of power and pollution credits.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and AES Energy, two of the area's top energy producers who have paid millions to pollute during the energy crisis, would instead pay into a special fund to help reduce smog.

"We're trying to clean up," said DWP Director of Strategic Planning Angelina Galiteva, whose "Green Power" practices have nudged 70,000 Angelenos to conserve energy through such means as solar power. "We feel we have a hot summer ahead of us and we're doing our part for conservation."

Conservation, everyone agrees, is the key to keeping the lights on and breathing healthier air.

"The power plants have us over a barrel," said Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition. "Our lifestyles are so energy thirsty we're down to two options ... more power plants and more pollution, (or) we look at our homes and businesses and how to conserve."

Staff writer Joseph Giordono contributed to this report.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 22, 2001

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