San Diego starting to deal with its smog

There's something in the air

San Diegans drive a total of nearly 25 million miles every day.
  • San Diegans drive a total of nearly 25 million miles every day.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

It started out as a typical spring day in San Diego: sunny skies, a gentle breeze coming in off the ocean, and light but persistent smog. Virginia Engler, a meteorologist for the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, stopped in at the National Weather Service station at Lindbergh Field on her way to work.

San Diego frequently has an onshore breeze that sweeps the smog inland. This is great, unless you happen to live in Alpine.

San Diego frequently has an onshore breeze that sweeps the smog inland. This is great, unless you happen to live in Alpine.

The Air Pollution Control District is responsible for monitoring San Diego’s air pollution, and one of the district’s three meteorologists stops by the Lindbergh station each morning to collect information so that he or she can forecast the day’s patterns. Engler was expecting nothing unusual.

Hal Brown: Most of our air pollution alerts last less than a couple of hours.”

Hal Brown: Most of our air pollution alerts last less than a couple of hours.”

There was a high-pressure zone over the desert, another off the coast, and a low-pressure zone down in the Gulf of California. A weak inversion layer (a layer of cool air trapped beneath a layer of warm air) covered most of the county, and the expected high temperature for the day was in the seventies. For the San Diego region it was typical, typical, typical.

Richard Sommerville. "He has shown a willingness to jump in and criticize when things don’t go his way," claimed a CPO official.

Richard Sommerville. "He has shown a willingness to jump in and criticize when things don’t go his way," claimed a CPO official.

Back at the district’s Kearny Mesa offices, Engler went about preparing her own forecast for the day. She was aided in her work by the district’s Pertec computer, a wardrobe-size, orange-and-gray machine plugged in to nine automated monitoring stations around the county. Every ten minutes the computer scans the pollution levels being measured at all nine stations, and immediately prints out the information on a teletype machine next to itself. At one o’clock, for instance, Engler could see from the computer scan that the level of ozone — the prime component of our local smog — at the Alpine station had risen to thirteen parts per 100 million. In Kearny Mesa the level was twelve, in Escondido eleven. Typical.

By two o’clock, however, the ozone levels at Kearny Mesa and Escondido had jumped to eighteen and seventeen, respectively. “That was not normal,” Hal Brown, the district’s senior meteorologist, recalled later. “The level for a Stage I smog alert is twenty parts per 100 million of ozone, and going over twenty in April is something we don’t anticipate happening but once every two or three years.” At 2:20 the computer’s alarm sounded, a piercing, mechanical shriek which meant that somewhere one of the monitoring stations was sucking air into a tube, scanning it for ozone, and finding a level of at least twenty parts per 100 million. It turned out to be in Escondido. “When we saw that, we thought, ‘If this holds, uh-oh,’ ” said Brown. The level of twenty parts per 100 million must hold for an hour before a smog alert is declared.

At three o’clock the ozone level at Escondido had dropped to eighteen, but soon began moving upward again, setting off the computer’s alarm a second time. At 3:33 a level of twenty-two was reported, and at four o’clock Brown told district officials to phone schools, hospitals, radio and TV stations, and newspapers with the following message: “This is the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District. A Stage 1 air pollution alert for very unhealthful air quality for ozone is declared for the inland area along Interstate 15 from Poway to Escondido. Children, the elderly, and persons with heart or respiratory ailments can expect significant aggravation of symptoms and decreased exercise tolerance. Sensitive individuals should stay indoors and everyone should reduce physical activity. Healthy persons can expect moderate discomfort.”

An hour later the ozone level in Escondido had dropped to ten as the cloud of smog rose and dissipated into the cool evening air. San Diego County’s first smog alert of 1980 was over.

Smog alerts here aren’t really surprising any more; they’re just one of the distressing realities of modern life. What is surprising is that few people in San Diego seem to think smog is a problem. In a poll taken by the Comprehensive Planning Organization in 1978, nearly sixty-five percent of the people interviewed said they thought San Diego’s air quality was good to excellent. Yet that same year, air pollution here exceeded the federal standard on eighty-eight days, including a Saturday in September when the county had its first Stage 2 alert in ten years. Last year the county exceeded the federal standard on sixty-six days, and in September again experienced Stage 2 smog alerts, during which people are advised to limit their driving and physical activity, and to stay indoors.

“It’s a perceptual thing,” says Richard Somnierville, the director of San Diego’s Air Pollution Control District, when asked why people here don’t view smog as a problem. “People compare our smog to Los Angeles and think, ‘Well, it’s not as bad.’ But if you compare it to reasonably healthy air, then you can see it’s a problem.”

Indeed it is. You can filter or even boil your water before you drink it, but what can you do about the air? Pollutants such as ozone and oxides of nitrogen, commonly found here, can damage plants and deteriorate rubber. They can reduce the protective mucous on human lungs, and cause swelling of lung cells. By restricting bronchial passages they can cause shortness of breath and put strain on the heart, which is why people with heart or lung ailments are the first to die during unusually heavy smog conditions. Ironically, the source of most of these pollutants is automobile exhaust.

In the entranceway to the Air Pollution Control District’s cool and rather dimly lit offices, there is a chart that shows a breakdown of San Diego County’s air pollution sources. Vehicles of all types account for about fifty-seven percent; or, as Hal Brown sums it up. “Morning traffic is an afternoon problem.” No one likes to think of his Chevy or her Volkswagen as being the source of San Diego’s smog, but the fact is, as you tool down the freeway on your way to work in the morning, you’re spewing out 3.69 grams per mile of hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen. This may not seem like much, but studies have shown that San Diegans drive a total of nearly 25 million miles every day. Not even an ocean of air could absorb an insult of this magnitude. Sunlight causes the hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen to react chemically with the air, forming ozone, and by afternoon this pollution has collected at the top of the local inversion layer, along with emissions from factories, power plants, laundromat boilers, gas stations. and so on. The result is a thick blanket of brown haze that extends from the coast to the mountains.

Hal Brown compares the inversion effect to a fire in a closed room: smoke would be trapped at the ceiling. But San Diego frequently has an onshore breeze from the ocean, a sort of “natural broom,” Brown says, that sweeps the smog inland. This is great, unless you happen to live in Alpine. The natural broom sweeps the smog into the natural dustpan of Alpine. On days when the smog is particularly bad, you can drive east on Interstate 8 beyond Alpine and watch yourself climb right up out of the inversion layer. Suddenly, the air is clear; mountains on both sides of the highway, which were formerly invisible, now stand out. Looking westward you can see a layer of smog stretching away toward the coast like a dirty linoleum floor.

Unfortunately, this is not the only air pollution we have. When conditions are right, Los Angeles air-mails us its smog, too. Some mornings Los Angeles’s smog sits in a trough just off the coast, trapped between two high-pressure areas. As the day wears on this air tends to move down toward the low-pressure zone over the Gulf of California, and as it does it pulls the smog along behind it like a kid pulling a wagon. San Diego, being in the way, occasionally gets the brunt of the cloud. This is the condition that led to the county’s Stage 2 warnings last September, and it is also the condition that led to the Stage 1 alert this April. (Our indigenous smog may be strong, but like our baseball team and our symphony, it’s nothing compared to what they have in the Big Orange.) San Diego’s proximity to Los Angeles ensures that if all our local industries were to close down, if all our vehicles were somehow to be impounded, if no one even lived here, this area would still suffer alert-level smog a few days each year.


When smog in Los Angeles was first recognized to be a major problem, back in the 1940s, one of the solutions proposed was to construct giant fans to blow it eastward over the mountains. In a way, the government has been fighting it with solutions like this ever since. Air pollution has been attacked with catalytic converters, vapor-recovery hoses, sulfur dioxide scrubbers, mercury pressure lamps, and photomultiplier tubes. The approach has always been to make it go away after it has formed. Preventing it from forming is generally viewed as too difficult, too “socially disruptive.” How do you get people to stop driving? How do you get people to cut down on consumption so that you don’t need as many factories and power plants?

For many years air pollution control was left up to local and and state governments. But eventually, when it became clear not only that little progress was being made, but that some states might try to set up “pollution havens” to compete with each other for industry. Congress stepped in and passed the Clean Air Act of 1970. People would still try to make smog go away after it had formed, but now they would have a federal ozone standard and a deadline to meet it (1977). Unfortunately, it turned out that cities such as Los Angeles would be unable to meet the ozone standard without reducing vehicle travel within their boundaries by roughly ninety percent. Drastic gas rationing was considered — and rejected as too socially disruptive. As the 1977 deadline loomed close. Congress solved the dilemma by relaxing the ozone standard and extending the deadline to 1987.

For the San Diego area, two branches of state government are currently responsible for trying to implement the federal government’s standard for clean air: the Los Angeles-based Air Resources Board, which is responsible for vehicle pollution statewide; and our local Air Pollution Control District, which, in addition to monitoring air quality, polices stationary sources of air pollution. The Air Resources Board is the agency behind automobile smog control devices, and it has recently been battling to get the state legislature to adopt a new “inspection and maintenance” program. This program would require California motorists to submit their vehicles for a smog inspection once a year, instead of only upon the purchase of a vehicle, as is currently the case. Such a program puts the burden of automobile pollution control even more squarely upon the shoulders of the consumer than it already is, and thus is perceived by politicians as something of a hot potato, particularly in an election year. On the other hand, having your car certified for clean emissions when you buy it doesn’t mean it won’t be polluting within a year or two, and with so many areas in California currently exceeding the federal ozone standard, the Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to cut off federal funds for highways and sewage systems if the state cannot provide for an inspection and maintenance program by September 16 of this year. (San Diego alone would lose nearly $400 million over the next two years if the program is not adopted.) The inspection and maintenance program is one of the last major steps the government can take to limit vehicle emissions through technology, but its contribution would be significant; in Phoenix, Arizona, an inspection and maintenance program reduced hydrocarbon emissions from automobiles by forty-one percent over a three-and-a-half-year period. California is the only state in the nation that does not have an inspection and maintenance program, and it currently appears that our legislature will adopt some version of a program prior to the September 16 deadline.

Meanwhile, San Diego’s other air pollution agency, the Air Pollution Control District, has been cleaning up San Diego’s stationary sources of air pollution for the last twenty-five years. The director of the local district is Richard Sommerville, a compact, dark-haired man who speaks with a mild twang, a leftover from his childhood in the Northwest. Sommerville recently propped his feet up on a desk in his sparsely furnished office at the district’s Kearny Mesa headquarters, and answered questions about San Diego’s air quality. As he talked he punctuated his comments from time to time with a phrase I found to be interesting, the phrase “assuming it’s a reasonable right for people not to have to breathe dirty air.”

Since the early 1970s, Sommerville claims, San Diego’s air quality has improved despite rapid population growth. “It’s improved because of our rigorous enforcement of the law. It’s not just a paper law. If someone is polluting, and they’re close to conforming to the regulations, we tell them they have to conform to the letter. We don't just let it go.” This sort of no-nonsense approach has earned Sommerville his share of supporters, but it has earned him some antagonists, too. He has publicly criticized the Comprehensive Planning Organization (an agency that studies and plans part of the area’s air quality strategy) for taking an unaggressive approach to limiting air pollution. “They consume an awful lot of money, and they put out an awful lot of paper,” he complains. “I would like to see that money go for demonstration projects rather than more analysis and planning — particularly for things that have already been analyzed.”

Sommerville’s criticism has fallen on the sympathetic ears of the county board of supervisors, which withdrew from CPO in July when CPO eliminated a car- and van-pooling program for county offices, and a planned system of express routes for mass transit, from the region’s air quality plan. At the time, Sommerville complained that CPO had actually vetoed the programs on its own; Supervisor Tom Hamilton fumed, “CPO is a bureaucracy out of control.” A high-ranking CPO official, who asked to remain anonymous, recently responded, “It was our position that the two programs were added at the last minute and were already being accomplished in other ways. Sommerville has shown a willingness to jump in and criticize when things don’t go his way, and that doesn’t enhance working relationships.”

For his part, Sommerville says that he wishes his district were the sole agency in San Diego for planning and implementing air pollution control, instead of sharing that responsibility with CPO. As it is, the district has two main functions: licensing, checking up on, and citing polluters; and monitoring air pollution, which includes the authority to call air pollution alerts. Stage 1 and 2 alerts are more advisory warnings for the public than anything else, but a Stage 3 emergency — which San Diego has never had — would have a dramatic effect on local businesses. Hal Brown, the district’s senior meteorologist, explains that in a Stage 3 emergency the district would contact some twenty-two major polluters, including SDG&E, NASSCO, Solar Turbines, General Dynamics, Kelco, and the North Island Naval Air Station, and request them to curtail their operations. In addition. Brown says, these and several hundred other companies would be asked to implement standby programs of car and van pools to reduce vehicle traffic. “But a Stage 3 is unlikely here because of our winds and breezes,” Brown went on to say. “One thing you have to keep in mind, in order to give these companies time to implement their emergency plans, we’d have to predict an emergency in advance. And normally you don’t forecast conditions worse than anything you’ve ever had before. Another thing is, you can’t really ask businesses to shut down unless you expect an emergency to last at least a half day. Most of our air pollution alerts last less than a couple of hours.”

As for the district’s other responsibility, policing local polluters, the staff’s vigilance has undoubtedly helped to clean up our local air. Yet there is one aspect of the job they have never solved satisfactorily. In the twenty-five years of the district’s existence, no one has ever figured out a systematic way to identify new businesses that might be polluting the air. The method arrived at is to send out field inspectors (the district has eleven) to look for new smokestacks or shops that are suspect.

(Sometimes I imagine this scenario: an inspector walks into an auto-painting shop that has been open for ten months, and says, ‘‘I’m from the Air Pollution Control District, and if you’re using more than a gallon of paint a day you’ve got to apply for a pollution permit, install filters on your spray booth to cut down the particulates, and if you’re using paint with reactive solvents you can’t put more than forty pounds a day into the air. . . .’’The owner responds, “You’re from what? Get out of here!”) One district official told me frankly, “Our inspectors are familiar with the types of industrial processes that contaminate the air, and when they see a smokestack or signs for a new business, they go in and start asking questions. But I would bet there are businesses out there that don’t have permits; some of them we may never catch.”

In spite of this hurdle, the district’s enforcement branch works diligently, daily sending out inspectors like Teresa Morris. I met Morris — a pleasant-looking woman who appears to be in her late twenties — one summer morning at the San Diego Pipeline Company. The San Diego Pipeline Company is the largest gasoline storage facility in San Diego County, and it is also the largest single source of hydrocarbons. Its enormous, cylindrical white tanks stand at the intersection of Murphy Canyon and Friars roads, near the stadium, and they are identified with familiar names: Shell, Texaco, Union 76. Gasoline trucks pull in here at all hours to fill up with fuel for gas stations around the county. Once a month, Morris pulls in to check the vapor-recovery devices at the company’s loading docks, and to make sure the big storage tanks haven’t developed leaks which would allow hydrocarbons to escape into the air.

Soon after I arrived that morning, Morris led me over to the loading dock, where a gleaming tank truck stood taking on gasoline. She pointed out the dock’s vapor-recovery devices, which are thick hoses that attach to an opening in the top of a truck’s tanks. As the tanks fill with gasoline, vapor is forced into the hoses and piped to a vapor storage tank, where it is cooled, condensed into liquid, and finally returned to the company’s huge gasoline storage tanks. Vapor-recovery devices are also being installed on gas pumps at stations around the county — as you fill your car’s tank with gas, the fumes are forced into a hose that recycles them into the station’s underground storage tanks — and they are one of the last practical steps the district can take to control hydrocarbon emissions. Roughly two-thirds of the county’s 1500 gas stations already have installed vapor-recovery equipment (although not all of it has been certified by the district to be working properly), and district officials say that the balance should have it installed within six months. The equipment is designed to limit hydrocarbon emissions at individual stations by at least ninety percent; stations which pump less than 2000 gallons of gasoline a month are exempt from the regulation.

Morris next led the way over to MV 13, one of San Diego Pipeline’s massive storage tanks. We climbed a narrow, curving stairway to the top of the fifty-foot-high tank, which Morris said contained premium gasoline. From the top of the stairway we had a good view of Murphy Canyon and the surrounding storage tanks, but our best view was of the inside of MV 13. The storage tanks are equipped with floating covers, Morris explained, that rise and fall with the level of gasoline. MV 13 was about half full. “When I check these tanks I go down inside and look for leaks and check to make sure the cover seal is tight,” she said. “Do you want to go down there and take a look?”

We climbed down a metal stairway, our footsteps echoing around the inside of the tank. At the bottom of the stairway we stepped out onto the metal cover, which immediately gave an ominous rumble and seemed to ripple out toward the tank walls. For an instant I had a vision of myself floundering in an ocean of gasoline; on my gravestone, I thought, they could at least note that it was premium. Morris seemed to sense my mood. “Normally when we inspect these tanks, two people come down,” she said. “One does the check and the other stays at the head of the stairway to run for help if something happens.” Nothing had ever happened, she tried to assure me.

Morris said she checked the cover for holes and leaks with a gas meter, which measures the concentration of gasoline fumes. If it reads a level high enough, the meter sets off a buzzer. “You can usually tell with your nose if there’s a leak, though,” she noted. Checking the seal around the edge of the cover is done with a one-eighth-inch wooden dowel. “See,” she said, jamming a length of dowel she had brought with her into the edge of the seal, “this is a new seal and a good seal, and it’s tight.”

Morris explained that if she found something wrong, she could issue either a citation or simply a notice of violation, depending on how flagrant the problem was. San Diego Pipeline has been notified of various violations, including malfunctioning seals and leaking vapor-return lines at the loading dock, but Morris insisted that, like most other “sources,” the company strives to comply with the district’s regulations. “The men that run these places are generally very cooperative,” she told me. ‘‘They don’t want to be harassed, so they keep up their maintenance. ” Then she grinned. “The fact that we’re here a lot of the time helps, too.’’ We made our way back to the foot of the stairway, and as Morris began climbing out, I paused for a moment, looking around at the inside of the tank. A bird flying overhead at that moment would have been able to glimpse us, standing here atop a huge reservoir of fossilized, refined. 600-million-year-old plants, a significant portion of which, after being piped, transported, pumped, and burned, makes it way out of auto tailpipes into the air. And in a way, although a bird would have been mercifully ignorant of the fact, the puniness of those two humans inside that massive storage tank would have been a neat symbol of the whole fight against air pollution. Because in spite of the job done by the district’s inspectors, in spite of technology like vapor-recovery hoses and smog control devices, in spite of the new inspection and maintenance program for these devices being contemplated by the state legislature, air pollution has overwhelmed us. We have fought the war against it with technology, and lost.

In a report to the county board of supervisors in April of this year, Richard Sommerville ran down the county’s latest tactics for controlling air pollution of various types, and concluded: “Generally, the data indicate that between now and 1982, the [various strategies] will provide substantial reductions of hydrocarbon pollution, and thus, smog. Between 1982 and 1985 acceptable improvements will continue but at a slower rate than previously anticipated. After 1985 little or no additional progress will occur. The health standard will not be obtained in 1987. Air quality will slowly degrade thereafter.” “We’ve hit most of the big projects we can,” Sommerville elaborated when I asked him about his report. “Now we’re getting into a multitude of programs that are increasingly expensive for an incrementally smaller reduction in air pollution. We’re just getting to the point where our energy-consumptive society is going to overcome our ability to control it. The indication is that will happen in ’84 or ’85.

“We’re past the time when you can say, ‘What I do is okay as long as I don’t hurt anyone else.’ Because society is so complex that whatever you do does affect someone else. Your driving affects someone else. Assuming it’s a reasonable right for people not to have to breathe dirty air.”

Outside his office window, the scrub-covered mesa stretched away eastward, sweltering in the early afternoon heat. The temperature out there was rising, and so was the ozone level. Sommerville is right, of course. Even the federal government, with its programs for mass transit systems, lower speed limits, lower thermostat settings, staggered work hours, and limited growth seems to have accepted the wisdom that technology is not enough. In order to beat air pollution, you have to prevent it from forming after all. Get people out of their cars. Conserve energy. Change lifestyles.

“Everyone has recognized that that’s an element of the problem,” Sommerville continued, “but many people feel it’s too difficult, it can't be done, it’s politically unacceptable, blah blah blah. They need to change that philosophy to ‘How can we?’ ” To achieve clean air is, after all, one of the laws of the land.

But then again, maybe it shouldn't be. Some people have criticized the federal ozone standard as being too strict to enforce; they say that it’s designed to protect ultrasensitive individuals from the slightest hint of discomfort. Sommerville does not agree. “The clean air standard was established with a reasonable safety margin,” he admitted, “so that the population would not suffer if the standard is slightly exceeded. That’s reasonable. Some places should maybe have more time to obtain the standard; some areas should have some flexibility along that line. But the standard should be based upon the health of people, and it should be the same wherever you go.” I thought of profits, of jobs, of lung tissue.

Technically, for San Diego to achieve the federal standard for clean air by 1987, population growth would have to stop immediately. No new highways could be built, no more cars licensed. In fact, many cars would have to be de-licensed. But there is a qualification built into the law, a qualification that says cities must only show “reasonable further progress.” Reasonable further progress does not necessarily mean achieving the clean air standard by 1987. Reasonable further progress means doing what you can afford. San Diego is making reasonable further progress. But what happens in 1987?

When I put that question to one district official, he paused and then said, “That’s when the shit hits the fan.” Sommerville, however, pointed out that if we don’t meet the standard in 1987, the EPA could withhold our highway and sewage funds. On the other hand, the Clean Air Act is up for review next year, and it could be extended, amended, or upended. “But I don’t think you have to forgo growth completely,” Sommerville said. “You can continue to grow, if you grow responsibly. But that just says we have to do more. How? First of all, you make the transit system useful for getting between work and home. Then you start incrementally working on car pools, park-and-ride lots, et cetera. You have to do a whole lot of these things to make this work, yes you do. But if you never get started, it doesn’t make any difference where you’re going, because you ain’t gonna get there.”


One day near the end of July my eyes began to sting and water more than usual. Mercy Hospital is only a half mile, as the crow flies, from my home, but when I went out onto my front porch I could see that the hospital buildings were partially hidden by a pervasive haze. As I watched the TV news that evening, I wasn’t surprised to learn that San Diego was having another Stage 1 smog alert.

The next day, when the smog seemed to have improved a little, I called the Air Pollution Control District’s forecast phone number. I was curious to find out what the smog level had been, and what it would be tomorrow. When I dialed the number, I got a recorded message. The voice on the tape was muffled at first, and I couldn’t make out what was being said. Suddenly the volume increased: “Air quality is reported in terms of the National Pollution Standard Index, or PSI, where one hundred is the PSI standard for clean air. An air pollution alert is issued at 200. The daily PSI for Wednesday, July 30, was: El Cajon, eighty-four; downtown San Diego, ninety-two; Oceanside, ninety-two, So-lana Beach, 188; Escondido, ninety-two; Kearny Mesa, ninety-two: Chula Vista, seventy-five; and Alpine, 150. The descriptive word was moderate to unhealth-ful air quality, and the responsible pollutant was ozone. The forecast for Thursday, July 31, is for little change in conditions. The forecast PSI levels are: El Cajon, seventy-five; downtown San Diego, eighty-four; Oceanside, fifty-five; Solana Beach, ninety-two; Escondido, eighty-four; Kearny Mesa, seventy-five; Chula Vista, seventy-five; and Alpine, 150. The responsible pollutant will be ozone. In areas forecast for levels above one hundred PSI, sensitive individuals can expect mild aggravation of symptoms, and should reduce physical exertion and activity during the afternoon hours. Healthy persons may experience some discomfort. There is a possibility that an air pollution alert above 200 PSI will occur tomorrow afternoon. Pollutant levels will be monitored closely, and an alert issued if required.”

The message ended there, but I dialed the number again because I thought there might be something important at the beginning of the tape that I missed. The recorded voice was again muffled for the first few seconds, though, and broke in at the same point it had before. Whatever that information was, I wasn’t going to hear it. The answering machine was malfunctioning.

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