California Air Cleaner than Ever

Published January 1, 2006

New data from California’s coastal cities show air quality in 2005 was remarkably high compared to years past, continuing a long-term trend.

With the region’s April 1 through October 1 “smog season” completed, and with no high-pollution days expected for the remainder of the year, air quality boards in mid-October released data on ozone noncompliance days for 2005.

Impressive Improvements

According to the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the San Francisco region exceeded the federal eight-hour ozone standard only once during 2005. That followed a successful 2004, when San Francisco had no violations. By comparison, San Francisco exceeded federal ozone levels seven times each year from 2001 through 2003, and had 16 violations in 1998.

According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Los Angeles and Orange County exceeded federal ozone standards 84 times in 2005. “That’s the lowest we’ve had since we started measuring in 1976,” reported the October 20 Greenwire. By comparison, Los Angeles and Orange County exceeded federal standards 109 times in 2003 and more than 200 times in 1977.

Interior Also Better

The interior San Joaquin region also showed significant air quality improvement. The region violated federal ozone standards 72 times in 2005, compared to 109 times in 2004. “Amid the debate over global warming, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the continued increase in consumption of fossil fuels, it is easy for us to overlook the dramatic progress the Bay Area–along with much of the state and nation–has made in reducing air pollution,” observed the November 20 Contra Costa Times.

“In the 1980s, smog checks for cars began, lead in gasoline was banned, and national standards for tiny particulate matter were established,” the Times explained. “During this time, pollution began to decrease significantly, and in 2004, for the first time, there were no ozone violations in the Bay Area for an entire smog season.”

“Emissions of ozone-forming pollutants are in significant decline,” said Joel Schwartz, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Ozone pollution in 2005 was much, much lower than in years past. As a result, the last two years have been record low ozone years in California and also throughout the United States.”

Growth Affects Interior

According to California officials, only in some interior regions of the state did air quality not improve in 2005. In these regions, population increases and economic growth put too many new cars on the roads and too much new industry in the area to continue recent air quality improvements.

Citing “population growth, construction, and more traffic,” California Air Resources Board spokesman Dimitri Stanich told Greenwire air quality improvements are in abeyance while the region is “being inundated with more people.”

Future Remains Bright

Even with population growth and economic expansion, interior portions of the state expect air quality improvements to resume in the future. That would mirror the experience of California’s coastal cities.

“Those who were living in the area 50 years ago remember a time when considerably fewer motor vehicles spewed far more pollutants into the atmosphere,” observed the November 20 Contra Costa Times. “With a population less than half what it is now, the Bay Area produced considerably more air pollution.”

“Population is growing everywhere, yet ozone pollution is in long-term decline,” Schwartz observed. “Year-to-year fluctuations are due largely to weather, but the long-term trends in coastal California, inland regions of California, and indeed nationwide are of substantial air quality improvement. Year-to-year variations inland must be seen within the context of the long-term trend.

“For example, the interior city of Arvin has had the worst ozone pollution in the country in recent years, but ozone pollution in Arvin declined by 50 percent in 2005,” Schwartz explained.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

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