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Clean Air

Photo of mountain peak above Mono Lake

EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region has many of the nation’s most dramatic mountain landscapes. But in some places, they can be obscured by air pollution. Los Angeles had lung-searing smog days as early as 1943. Phoenix, Las Vegas, and California’s San Joaquin Valley have also suffered from unhealthy levels of particulate pollution.

A combination of factors has made the quest for clean air in these areas an uphill battle. In addition to topography and weather, rapid urban growth plays a major role, generating more smog ingredients from vehicles, and more dust (coarse particulates) from construction sites. For the past two decades, Las Vegas and Phoenix have been the nation’s fastest-growing major urban areas.

Yet despite these considerable challenges, pollution control measures have gotten results. Peak smog levels in the Los Angeles area are less than half what they were in the 1970s. Las Vegas is on the verge of attaining the national health standards for ozone and coarse particulates, while Phoenix has attained the standards for ozone and carbon monoxide — even as it continues its visible struggle with coarse particulate pollution.

Clean air is not an easy goal. But through traditional planning, new technologies, and innovative partnerships, real progress is being made.

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Air Quality Trends Positive — But Key Areas Still Lag

Map of the Key Air Pollution areas in the Pacific Southwest

Map of the Key Air Pollution areas in the Pacific Southwest. Larger View

Even as population and economic activity have boomed over the past few decades, the trend in air quality in the Pacific Southwest has been a positive one. However, millions of people live in areas that are still a long way from meeting health standards.

As shown in Figure 1, the biggest long-term success for clean air in the Pacific Southwest is also the biggest remaining problem: Ozone (smog) levels in the South Coast air basin — the greater Los Angeles area — are far better than they were in the 1970s, but still the unhealthiest in the nation. Ozone levels there have failed to meet the national health standard on more than 100 days per year in some recent years.

In other areas of the Pacific Southwest, progress has been slow, but consistently trending toward meeting the health standard for ozone.

The data in Figure 2, showing levels of fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, only go back to 1999, but the trends are also positive: All but two areas have consistently met the national health standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The exceptions, California’s South Coast and San Joaquin Valley, are making gradual progress. (With EPA’s recent tightening of one of its PM2.5 standards due to better understanding of health impacts, additional areas will also need to improve.)

“Rapid growth makes it difficult to achieve the health standards, because emission reductions from pollution control measures can be erased by growth in the number of sources,” says Dave Jesson, EPA’s senior expert on air quality in the Pacific Southwest.

“We’ve made big strides through measures requiring cleaner vehicles, low-emission products, and better controls on industrial sources,” says Jesson. “Extending progress will require increasingly creative and aggressive combinations of policymaking, planning and new technologies.”

Chart of Ozone Concentrations

Figure 1: Ozone (O3) Concentrations. Larger View .

Chart of Particulate Matter Concentrations

Figure 2: Particulate Matter (PM2.5) Concentrations. Larger View

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Goods Movement: Working with Ports to Reduce Air Pollution

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EPA awarded a $300,000 grant to the Port of Long Beach to develop a hybrid-powered cargo-handling vehicle. Left to right: EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock, port director Richard Steinke, cargo terminal VP Anthony Otto, Harbor Commission President James Hankla, EPA Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri, port planner Robert Kanter.

In the vast transportation network of ships, trucks and trains that move every conceivable type of goods from place to place, few locations can match the intense activity of a port.

The adjacent ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, taken together, handle 40% of the nation’s containerized cargo traffic — more than 14 million 20-foot containers annually, carrying more than $260 billion worth of goods. As big as they are, these figures may double by 2020. The combined ports are an economic powerhouse for the Los Angeles area, and, by some estimates, are responsible for more than 300,000 jobs in the five-county region.

However, with the economic benefits come environmental challenges. Air pollution from these seaports is a major ingredient in the area’s infamous smog, still the nation’s worst despite decades of hard-won gains in air quality. The area’s airborne particulate pollution also still reaches unhealthy levels.

Not only do the ships add air pollutants from their smokestacks, but vast armies of diesel equipment work to support port activities, from the tugs that help move the ships safely, to the equipment that moves containers from place to place on the docks, to the trucks and trains that bring the containers to their final destinations. Each type of equipment contributes to the air quality challenges of the LA area. All of the parties now recognize that in order for the area to attain the health-based standards for fine particles and ozone, it is essential that all of this equipment operate cleaner than it does now.

Panoramic photo of the Port of Los Angeles

The Port of Los Angeles’ shore facilities stretch over several square miles. All cargo is containerized for easy transfer to trucks and trains.

State and local agencies are deeply involved in ambitious plans to reduce emissions from the ports. One of the most innovative and far reaching plans is the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan, drafted by both ports with the involvement of key regulatory agencies, including EPA. The plan, unveiled in 2006, proposes hundreds of millions of dollars in investments by the ports, government agencies, and port-related industries to reduce the ports’ air pollution by an ambitious 50% in the next five years, cutting diesel particulates by 1,200 tons and nitrogen oxides by 12,000 tons annually.

In 2007, port tenants, railroads, and trucking companies at the ports are expected to sign on to participate in the plan, which includes commitments to:

Clean Diesel and the
West Coast Collaborative

On September 1, 2006, California required service stations to sell diesel with 97% less sulfur, greatly reducing particulates in diesel emissions. Under an EPA regulation, the rest of the nation followed suit on October 15. The move is predicted to benefit public health even more than the phase-out of leaded gasoline in the 1970s and 1980s.

EPA has funded 51 diesel emissions reduction projects in the West since 2004, together with more than 30 government agencies and private partners that form the West Coast Collaborative. EPA grants totaling $7.5 million for the projects have leveraged tens of millions from other sources.

Recognizing the importance of goods movement and ports in particular to environmental issues nationwide, EPA in September 2006 convened a meeting of regional administrators, national EPA officials, and other key stakeholders to discuss solutions for port-related pollution in all U.S. coastal states. These efforts, together with EPA’s core role in setting national emissions standards, will continue to ensure progress in improving public health.

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San Joaquin Valley Strives for Healthier Air

The topography of California’s San Joaquin Valley provides an almost perfect trap for air pollution: It is long, low, and surrounded by mountains except at its northern extension, the Sacramento Valley.

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Orange groves and cultivated fields stretch across the east side of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The San Joaquin has been California’s most productive agricultural area for more than a century, and in recent years it has experienced rapid urban growth and an influx of large dairies. All three contribute to some of the nation’s most challenging air quality problems, which affect the health and livelihood of the valley’s 3.3 million residents and 27,000 farms.

In the valley’s hot, dry summers, emissions from cars, trucks, trains, livestock waste, prescribed burning, oil and gas production, recreational boats, and pesticides combine to create unhealthy ozone levels. During the cooler fall and winter, particulates are the greater health problem. Particulate sources include dust from vehicles on both paved and unpaved roads, smoke from home fireplaces and burning of agricultural waste, and diesel exhaust from the region’s trucks, buses, tractors, locomotives, and irrigation pumps.

Thanks to efforts led by the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, the valley for the first time met the national health standard for coarse particulate matter such as dust and soot (known as PM10) for the 2003-2005 period. The agency’s 2003 PM10 reduction plan put a variety of measures in place that have added up to cleaner air, including restrictions on fireplaces, and on burning dead trees and branches from orchards and other agricultural materials. There were state-funded financial incentives for replacing dirty diesel engines with cleaner ones.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort into improving the valley’s air quality,” says Kerry Drake, associate director of EPA’s regional Air Division. “But there is still much more to do.”

EPA has long been a partner in San Joaquin’s efforts to reduce air pollution. The agency has worked with agriculture to build a flexible, menu-driven program for reducing agricultural dust, developed standards for engine emissions and fuels — which over time will have a particular impact on non-road sources such as diesel pumps and tractors — and has funded key research on emissions inventories, monitoring, and modeling. The agency has also brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to advance innovative emission reduction projects through the West Coast Collaborative.

The valley has a long way to go to meet the national health standards for ozone and small particulates, PM2.5. These small particles, which are even more harmful than PM10 because they go deeper into people’s lungs, come from some of the same sources: Farming, road dust, and managed burning account for nearly half the valley’s PM2.5. Other major sources include stationary sources (irrigation pump engines and smokestacks) and burning of residential fuels such as propane and natural gas.

To help the valley meet a number of challenges, including air quality, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger formed the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley in September 2005. EPA and the air district were part of the partnership’s Air Quality Workgroup, which submitted an action plan to the governor in late 2006, focusing on collaboration between federal, state, and local agencies to accelerate adoption of emissions reduction technologies such as replacing diesel engines with cleaner alternatives.

The air district’s most recent efforts include requiring wineries and dairies to reduce their volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. Also starting in 2007, housing and commercial developers must mitigate the added air pollution their developments will create, or pay into a mitigation fund. In addition, the district is due to submit a plan in mid-2007 to meet the new health standard for ozone.

Exactly when the valley will meet all air quality health standards is difficult to predict. But one thing is certain: Everyone’s effort will be needed.

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Research Supports Mission, Spurs Innovation

Working behind the scenes on many environmental challenges in the Pacific Southwest is EPA’s Regional Science Council, which strives to strengthen EPA’s scientific skills and knowledge. Its membership includes staff and managers from across EPA’s programs and from the Management and Technical Services Division, which provides regional science support.

The council regularly hosts seminars on cutting-edge science developments and emerging issues. It also plays a leadership role in deploying support resources from EPA’s national Office of Research and Development. In 2006, the council assembled EPA’s first regional science plan, which examines the critical science needs and activities driving broader priorities in the Pacific Southwest.

Studying Air Pollution from Airports

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This High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL) image is the result of data collected by a NASA aircraft flying over the eastern San Joaquin Valley on February 15, 2007. It shows that aerosols (fine particulates) were mostly confined to the southern part of the valley, and below 1,500 meters altitude. (Image courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center). Larger View

One of EPA’s top regional priorities is reducing air pollution in urban areas. EPA funded a study conducted by the UCLA School of Public Health to identify ambient levels of the complex particulate and toxic emissions at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), both at the blast fence and in the community downwind of the LAX runways. This project was proposed and designed as part of the LAX Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) review process because EPA had identified a lack of information on jet engine emissions as a deficiency in the 2000 EIS for LAX. The results of the first phase of that study, which was focused on the blast fence area, are expected in early spring of this year.

This research has laid the groundwork for further projects at LAX, as well as airports in Boston and Rhode Island. This year, a larger year-long air quality and emission source apportionment study is planned. Results are expected to help assess community exposure to air pollution from aircraft and airports worldwide. Air Quality Research Centers in California

Two California research centers have each received $8 million in EPA funding for innovative work on air quality and health. The first of the two grants is funding five years of research at the San Joaquin Valley Aerosol Health Effects Center at the University of California, Davis. Focused on the San Joaquin Valley, researchers here are evaluating exposures to airborne particulate matter and trying to figure out which components and sources lead to observed health effects.

The second is being put to use by the Southern California Particle Center, a consortium of universities including the University of Southern California, UC Irvine and UCLA. Researchers are investigating the underlying mechanisms that produce the health effects associated with exposure to particulate matter. They are also looking at how the health effects vary depending on the source, chemical composition and physical characteristics of the particulates.

Advanced Monitoring Initiative and GEOSS

The U.S. is part of an international effort to better understand the Earth’s natural processes and environmental conditions — the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). EPA is supporting GEOSS by funding short research projects through the agency’s Advanced Monitoring Initiative (AMI).

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Senior science policy adviser Jan Baxter and Waste Division environmental scientist Mary Blevins co-chair the Regional Science Council.

EPA has two AMI-funded projects underway in the Pacific Southwest. One will evaluate whether data from satellites, ground sensors, and balloons can be combined to better understand ozone (smog) formation, severity, and movement in the U.S.-Mexico border area. Partners include NASA-Ames, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy, UC Berkeley, and the Pan American Health Organization.

The other project is using satellite and overflight data to study the distribution of fine airborne particulates (PM2.5) in the San Joaquin Valley. This data will also enable researchers to test the reliability of the valley’s ground-based measurement network and the need for future ground-based studies. Partners include NASA, NOAA, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, and the California Air Resources Board.

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Biofuels: Grease Is the Word

Biodiesel from restaurant grease burns cleaner and takes far less energy to manufacture and distribute than petroleum-based diesel.

Thanks to an increasing awareness of global climate change and the risks of dependence on foreign oil, there’s been a resurgence of interest in cleaner, domestic energy such as biofuels — renewable fuels from plant and animal sources, such as methane from cow manure, ethanol from corn or switchgrass, and biodiesel from restaurant grease or soybeans.

In addition to an array of programs to increase energy efficiency (see p. 35 for examples), EPA has helped promote the use of biofuels and other alternative energy sources. In the Pacific Southwest, more than a dozen dairies are already converting manure into methane and using it to generate electricity. In the region’s cities, a growing number of restaurants and cafeterias are redirecting tons of used cooking oil and grease to the production of biodiesel.

In San Francisco, oils used to fry food in restaurants are fueling the city’s vehicle fleet. In 2005, the city’s transit system fueled a single bus with B20 — a mixture of 20% biodiesel and 80% regular diesel. More B20 buses are now operating, and Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that by 2008 all of the city’s vehicles will use B20, creating a demand for over 2 million gallons of pure biodiesel annually. In March 2007, EPA Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri awarded a $200,000 grant to the City College of San Francisco to start training mechanics to work on vehicles using B20 or 100% biodiesel.

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Biodiesel-powered vehicles like this “Bio-Beetle” are turning heads in Hawaii and other locations.

In Southern Nevada, recycled grease from Las Vegas casino restaurants fuels more than 1,300 Clark County School District buses, which use B20. At the University of Nevada, Reno, an EPA grant helped chemical engineering Professor Hatice Gecol develop a low-cost, continuous production process to make biodiesel from the student cafeteria’s waste cooking oils. The scaled-up production facility will soon make 800,000 gallons of biodiesel per year.

In Santa Cruz, California, a $75,000 EPA grant to Ecology Action proved the local market potential of biodiesel. This led to the construction of a biodiesel production plant in the nearby Salinas Valley that uses both agricultural and restaurant waste as feedstock. On the Hawaiian Island of Maui and at Los Angeles International Airport, you can rent “Bio-Beetle” cars that run on biodiesel.

According to Olof Hansen, EPA’s regional biodiesel expert, biodiesel from restaurant grease has great advantages over conventional diesel. First, it’s cleaner-burning (60% less particulate emissions, and nearly 80% less greenhouse gases). Second, it takes far less energy to manufacture and distribute, especially if it’s made and used locally. Third, it diverts restaurant grease that can clog sewer pipes and thereby prevents sewage overflows to surface waters (See the Clean Water Section).

And finally, it enables restaurants, institutional kitchens, and biodiesel producers to turn a waste into a valuable product. In California, there’s even a trade association, CalFOG (FOG = “Fat, Oils, Grease”) that unites restaurants, waste haulers, and wastewater treatment plant managers. Ironically, the diesel engine’s inventor, Germany’s Dr. Rudolph Diesel, originally built the engine in 1894 to run on peanut oil, which was cheaper than petroleum fuels. Biodiesel, like recycling, has come full circle.

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Bob Baker: Preventing Air Pollution Through Precise Permitting

Next time you’re in a plane flying over an urban area, look around. Can you see any smokestacks belching smoke? Probably not, thanks to people like Bob Baker. He reviews air emission permits issued by states and tribes for new electric power plants, to make sure they minimize air pollution. Baker has been very busy in recent years, as the energy crisis of 2000-2001 sparked an upsurge in plans for new power plants.

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Above: Bob Baker in the early ‘70s at EPA’s lab in Alameda, California.
Below: Baker today.

Photo of Bob Baker today

These permits are crucial to clean air, because they limit the allowable emissions from all major “stationary sources” — mostly industrial facilities, as opposed to “mobile sources,” such as vehicles and construction equipment.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, EPA oversees the issuance of permits for new stationary sources. To prevent delays in the already lengthy permit process, Baker works with his counterparts at state or tribal air pollution control agencies to find out what’s being proposed early on. He’ll take a close look at the plans, and tell them what the project needs to do to minimize air pollution. The state regulators then write these conditions into the permit.

For example, one important requirement is known as “BACT” — Best Available Control Technology. This requires new stationary sources to use state-of-the-art pollution control equipment. Another is the offset requirement that applies in areas like California’s South Coast air district, where the air fails to meet national health standards. Here, applicants wanting to build a new facility are required to find and reduce existing pollution sources, so there’s no net increase in air pollution. This has also helped drive technical innovations, since it’s a strong incentive to minimize emissions from the new facility.

Another crucial requirement in every permit is the modeling protocol. This specifies how air emissions from the facility will be accurately measured, recorded, and submitted to the regulatory agency. The data enables the agency to take enforcement action if the facility puts out more pollution than its permit allows.

Baker is an expert on combustion processes, the emissions they generate, and ways to reduce them. During his career in EPA’s regional Air Division, new technology has allowed new power plants to become far more efficient, and far less polluting. The latest emission controls on natural gas-fired power plants have reduced nitrogen oxide emissions (an ingredient in smog) from 150 parts per million (ppm) down to 2.5 ppm or less.

A UC Davis-trained civil engineer, Baker was born at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco, and grew up in Vallejo. After college, he served three years in the U.S. Army, including one in Vietnam as a tank commander, before coming to EPA in 1972. At EPA, he worked first as a lab technician, then in 1980 started doing technical analysis of proposed new stationary sources. He’s been doing similar work ever since. After more than 35 years at EPA, Baker is planning to retire this year.

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