'Choked': Can LA clean its dirty air?

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Los Angeles has yet again earned the dubious distinction as the nation’s capital for dirty air.

The American Lung Association’s 2019 "State of the Air" report ranks the LA-Long Beach metropolitan area the worst in the nation for ozone pollution -- for the 19th time.

LA’s also in the top 10 for worst year-round and short-term particle pollution. And that has real costs.

“Air pollution has a really profound effects on our health, not just our lungs,” said Beth Gardiner, author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution, a look at the causes and effects of dirty air in cities worldwide .

“Air pollution is linked very strongly now by the scientific evidence to elevated risk of heart attack, of stroke, of dementia, of premature birth, a very long list of health problems including the biggest health problem of them all which is premature death.”

DnA talks with Gardiner about why LA skies remain dirty despite the game-changing 1970’s Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. She also delivers a surprise: LA’s air is less dirty than London’s. We learn why; and we hear about a dispute over automation at the ports, what that has to do with air quality and the technological changes that must happen if we are to clean our skies.

View of the smoggy Los Angeles skyline from Griffith Observatory. Photo credit: Al Pavangkanan

Gardiner moved to London 18 years ago, and was puzzled to find the streets always smelled of exhaust fumes.

That led her on a journey to study air pollution around the world, and she found cities are choking on a cocktail of particulates from cars, trucks, buses, industry and coal and natural gas-fired power plants. Along the way she learned that London’s air is actually filthier than New York and LA, thanks to the high use of diesel-powered cars in London and other European cities.

“And that sort of surprised me as an American because we're not used to thinking of ourselves as being out ahead of Europe on anything to do with environment --  and generally speaking we're not,” Gardner said.

LA’s pollution derives in part from the sheer number of cars -- offsetting the clean air gains of EPA’s oversight.

As part of his Green New Deal, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has called on Angelenos to ratchet up the number of electric or zero-emission cars they drive, or to simply drive much less.

He also wants to see improvements at the ports, which contribute heavily to LA’s poor air quality.

The Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach is the largest and busiest port in the United States. Photo credit: Charles Csavossy

One company has used claims of cleaning air at the ports as a justification for automating its operations at the port. APM Terminals is in a battle with the longshore union over its plans to automate cargo handling activities.  

“Our company is trying to do exactly what California, the local Air District, the city, the port, environmental groups and local communities have directed marine terminals to do — improve the environment and public health by reducing diesel and greenhouse gas emissions,” the company said in a statement.

But skeptics suggest this is a smokescreen to distract from the real goal of cutting labor costs.

David Pettit, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), joins DnA to explain the link between automation at the ports and air cleanliness. There is none, he says, unless “the equipment is electrified or otherwise converted to zero emission. You can have automated equipment that's diesel powered and that is not cleaning the air. So the real issue to me isn't whether the equipment is automated or not but whether it is zero emission or not. And I think that issue is getting lost in the heat of the dispute between APM and the Longshore Union.”

Petit and Gardiner both point to the importance of regulations adopted in California that have affected and improved auto exhaust emissions over the decades, protections that the Trump administration is now trying to roll back “and which we’re opposing.”