Some Friday catch-up: an interview, a trip to Caltech, an accolade, and a kick in the teeth for the AQMD

Ladies and gents, let’s get right down to business. He have a full agenda.


First, Capitol Weekly, the publication that covers California state government and politics, printed a recent interview with us about our book (insert rolling of eyes at shameless plug), Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.

Here’s the opening section

Capitol Weekly: How did you get the idea to write a book about smog in LA?

Jacobs: “A few years back, I was reading yet another newspaper series about the onslaught of global warming. Amidst all the debate, (I realized) nobody had written a social history about one of America’s most epic and teachable environmental crises. Having grown up in fume-choked Pasadena, where playing outdoor sports almost merited hazard pay, I vividly remembered the vanishing mountains, smog alerts, civic depression and the overwhelming zeitgeist that the situation would never improve. When I put together those childhood recollections with the glaring absence of a compelling book about the L.A. air pollution caper, I knew I had a chance to retell a pretty seminal ecological narrative.”

Kelly: “Los Angeles was the original laboratory for studying smog and devising solutions. The war on smog here has brought the world lower polluting cars, cleaner ways of making products, and even cleaner consumer products—from house paints to barbecues and even hair sprays and nail polish. But for every two steps forward through cleaner technology, growth has forced the region to take a step back. This is nowhere more evident than at the region’s huge ports, which many call the driveway to the nation. During the economic downturn of the early 1990s when the aerospace industry shrunk, political leaders were looking for a substitute to fuel growth. It was the time of free trade agreements and they seized on capturing imports through the ports of LA and Long Beach. It worked. But one of the consequences was the growing use of diesel trucks, trains, and huge ships spouting smoke and soot to move all those goods. Since the diesel soot is carcinogenic, the risk of cancer along the routes for the goods flowing through the ports is quite high. There is a plan to clean it up, but at a big cost. The current economic troubles will make it difficult and are likely to slow the plan.”


Now for a little university appeciation. As you’ll see when you read the book, Caltech, dawning back from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, was the intellectual center of the smog-discovery galaxy when nobody in all of Southern California could definitely say what was causing Los Angeles’s stinging air-pollution or explain the biochemical and metereological behaviors fanning it. Yesterday, we had the honor of speaking to a roomful of Caltech professors, students and others about what we learned from a social history vantage point. It was exhilirating and appropos, and the folks there asked the insightful questions you’d figure they would. Organing our little trip down there was graduate student Arthur Chan and one of his terrific professors, Dr. Paul Wennberg. After our talk, we were sky-high (and these days you can actually see the sky, not the brown overhang of yesteryear), and doubled our pleasure when we were invited to see a university laboratory housing a modern-day smog chamber. Eyeballing all that shiney equipment measuring and probing particulate matter got your brain buzzing. Yet it was speaking to the bright-eyed, sharp-minded students who help run it that was the most impressive. Our environment will be in fine hands, if the Caltech kids have their moment.


Booklist magazine, which had graced us with a starred review earlier in our launch, recently named Smogtown one of 2009′s best environmental books. We’re humbled to be in the company of such other great books, including Thomas Friedman’s. From the publication:

“A fun book about smog? Jacobs and Kelly capture the aura of 1950s sci-fi movies in this lively history of Los Angeles’ monstrous smog.”


Finally, Los Angeles’ smog-control agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, had its legal hat handed to it after a judge ruled one of its pollution-trading programs, known as Emission Reduction Credits, cannot move forward as planned without further analysis. In Smogtown, we delve fairly deeply, though not exhaustively, into the AQMD’s cornerstone pollution market for large manufacturers commonly referred to as RECLAIM. Stay tuned for a lot more about this!

From one newspaper account about the ERC-defeat, and its background:

“A little-noticed three-month-old Los Angeles court ruling is destined to cause big headaches for Southern California businesses and bring a pair of critical major mountain projects to a halt.

The ruling, issued Nov. 3 by Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones, forbids the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) from issuing air-quality permits for thousands of business expansion projects for at least a year, a district spokesman said.

The AQMD has appealed the ruling, but officials predict it will take at least a year to resolve …

“This is a terrible time for this kind of thing to happen,” said Sam Atwood, public information officer for the Diamond Bar-based four-county air quality agency. “In this economy it will end development,” added Charis Larson, public information officer at LACSD.”

… Emission offsets, which AQMD calls emission reduction credits (ERC), counterbalance increased emissions from new pollution sources and provide a net air-quality benefit. They allow polluted areas to improve air quality while allowing industrial growth.

… In the past, (Atwood) said, AQMD provided ERCs to critical public facilities such as utilities, sewage-treatment plants, hospitals and police stations, at no charge from the district’s internal bank.

It also gave them to businesses that annually emit less than four tons of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, oxides or nitrogen or sulfur, particulate matter and lead, he said. Such businesses include gas stations and dry cleaners …

The ruling came in a lawsuit by four environmental groups—the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Communities for a Better Environment, Coalition for a Safe Environment and California Communities Against Toxics. They challenged the environmental review AQMD performed before adopting Rule 1309.1, pertaining to new power plants, and Rule 1315, which set up the emissions bank …

Here’s the Feb. 2 Los Angeles Times story about the situation.

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