Smogtown:
The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles 6

Smogtown

Smogtownby Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly
Overlook Press, 2008

Smogtown isn’t a new book, but the conflicts covered in its last chapters are still breaking news. The LA Times’ Trash talk and the real dirt on a toxic tour of Los Angeles, just featured one of Smogtown‘s history makers, Communities for a Better Environment. The group has been protesting pollution hazards, including those from freight transfer facilities, endured by communities along the 710 for the past 20 years.

The SR-710 extension gets a mention early on. The text contradicts claims that it is the “last remaining gap” in the system, saying that disgust with the results of freeway building scuttled almost 40 percent of the 1954 regional blueprint in the latter decades of the 20th century, including routes through Beverly Hills, Laurel Canyon and Pasadena.

The fight over building another freeway through Pasadena continues, however, pitting communities against each other. The Monrovia City Council will consider the city of Alhambra’s request for it to reaffirm a resolution supporting the SR-710 completion tonight (September 3) at its regularly scheduled 7:30pm meeting (Agenda Item AR-1). Representatives from Metro and Alhambra, as well as from communities opposing the SR-710 extension, will be there. Glendale, La Canada Flintridge, South Pasadena, and Sierra Madre officially oppose the proposed extension, and have petitioned Metro and Caltrans to fund transit options and focus on rail for goods movement to limit truck traffic.

A controversial transit line is now planned through Beverly Hills. Near Laurel Canyon, a huge project to widen the 405 is causing widespread disruption, and even before its completion another rail tunnel is being proposed to alleviate traffic in the Sepulveda Pass.

The air near LA’s freeways: How dangerous? asks today’s LA Times, in a followup to its story a week ago about AQMD’s monitoring of freeway pollution. Now that the AQMD has been required by the courts to monitor freeway air pollution, what will it do if levels exceed federal standards? The Times editorial says “Forcing older diesel trucks off the road would be hugely expensive for a very localized problem.” This “localized” problem affects millions in Southern California, and truck accidents are frequent, dangerous, and sometimes fatal. A solution that takes large trucks off crowded urban roadways is needed for many reasons.

Pollution from port facilities / transport infrastructure made it into the book’s later history, and continues to make news today (see the Long Beach Business Journal report on the Top 5 Sources of Air Pollution in the Region). Imposing low- and zero-emission requirements on trucks going into and out of the port complexes continues to be controversial, as several owner/operators are solo business owners. It’s also an incomplete solution that alleviates some air pollution, but doesn’t address congestion and traffic safety problems. Why not put freight on short-haul rail lines to distribution points throughout Southern California?

What didn’t make it into Smogtown are game-changing new proposals for goods movement that feature electrified rail: zero-emission, short-haul railcars that transport freight directly from the port to warehouses and transfer facilities. A system like GRID, now pursuing next steps at CleantechLA, could take thousands of trucks off urban roadways and eliminate much of the pollution from container transfer facilities along the 710.

A prominent name in Smogtown‘s early chapters is Caltech scientist Arie Jan Haagen-Smit, who first linked smog to tailpipe emissions in the 1950s and proved his case to industry detractors.

The earlier history in this book is entertaining and enlightening. In contrast with dry accounts of the decades-long struggle the auto industry waged to avoid emission limits, this book covers selected battles by focusing on personalities like Haagen-Smit and vendettas like the war waged on Detroit by Supervisor Kenneth Hahn for better pollution controls on cars. Its chapters make for great drama instead of dry documentary. Scientists, politicians, lobbyists and determined bureaucrats on both sides fight it out, while residents used to burning their trash and driving their cars suffer through smog alerts but are difficult to motivate.

Back to breaking news – a quote from the book that could have appeared in one of today’s columns:

Hudson Elementary School in Long Beach, California, lies along the busy Terminal Island Freeway, which carries trucks from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Across the highway there’s a rail yard where diesel locomotives, like the trucks barreling past, carry cargo containers from the twin port complex. Emissions from the trucks and trains, not to mention from nearby ships, oil refineries, and other industrial facilities clustered around the port, have made the location of the elementary school one of the most polluted points in Los Angeles.

…Just beyond…lie two of the busiest intermodal shipping facilities in the nation…More than 30,000 trucks rumble through this neighborhood to its rail yards each day, spewing diesel soot all the way…The neighborhood also lies along Interstate 710, a freeway that the California Department of Transportation has proposed double-decking with special lanes to accommodate a projected doubling of freight trucks serving the port complex over the next decade.

Smogtown is great reading because much of the history it covers is still unfolding today: The BNSF Southern California International Gateway project, an inter-modal facility four miles from the port, is being actively opposed by the City of Long Beach, Communities for a Better Environment, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other groups. Long Beach is suing Los Angeles over approval of the SCIG EIR. The I-710 expansion EIR, in the works for years, is being held up and is actively opposed by a large coalition proposing its own Community Alternative 7. Further north, the No 710 Action Committee is urging Caltrans and Metro to seek rail alternatives for goods movement and fund more transit. The Committee opposes a roadway/tollway (it will almost certainly not be a freeway) connecting the I-710 to the 210 and facilitating more truck traffic through Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge, Glendale and communities further east and west.

The Southern California Association of Governments and Mobility 21 are both petitioning the federal government to fund their proposed goods movement projects, and both organizations are actively promoting their long-term plans.

For more background on Southern California’s goods movement infrastructure, environmental justice movement, research on fine particulate pollution, and personalities still making news today, Smogtown is a great resource.

Editor’s Note: This is the last Sunroom Desk book review of Summer 2013, and a great one to end the series. Looking forward to great books, better air and long-term transportation solutions next summer.


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6 thoughts on “Smogtown:
The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles

  • David Bogosian

    Very interesting. I never quite understood the So. Pas opposition to the freeway. I worked for 5 years in that city, at an office on Fair Oaks, and the building would shake as the big trucks would go rumbling by day after day. I always thought, wouldn’t it be better to get those trucks off the boulevard and onto a freeway? If I lived in So. Pas, I certainly would prefer that (unless my home was being bulldozed, I guess). So is the opposition based on the fear that a new freeway will attract much larger volume of truck traffic?

  • Editor Post author

    Truck traffic is one of the major concerns of the opposition. Consider:
    1) the I-710 (existing freeway) is being dramatically widened to accommodate more trucks, and that roadway now ends where the SR-710 would begin;
    2) the only way to find enough funds to pay for a huge highway tunnel is to attract private investors, so the resulting route will have to be a tollway, not a freeway. Those most likely to use the throughway and pay the tolls are those who can pass the costs along (i.e., those moving freight in trucks).

    Providing a direct route from the ports to the 210 will mean thousands more trucks on that freeway daily, which translates to increased congestion and pollution and decreased road safety.

    The opposition has cited the extension of the 210 to San Bernardino, which was touted as a solution for congestion but which has instead increased truck traffic on the 210, as proof that providing more roadway space doesn’t solve the problem.

    That and other arguments are contained in this short presentation, prepared in 2012: The 710 Tunnel Threatens Pasadena.

  • sbolan

    Great review Elise. I would refer David to no710.com to see the 100s of reasons why El Sereno, South Pasadena, and Pasadena directly don’t want this freeway extension and why the surrounding cities oppose it. The main reason I oppose it, living in La Crescenta is the sheer volume of projected traffic. There currently is 44,000 vehicles per day that travel between these cities. If the tunnel is built, it is projected that 180,000 vehicles will use it every day. The toll will cause a 35% diversion rate, which is 63,000 cars and trucks remaining on local streets, a substantial increase from present. The remaining 117,000 will go through the tunnel to the 210 and half will find their way past my house. I can hardly sleep now because of all the heavy truck traffic barreling down the 210 at 4 in the morning. Adding port traffic to that mix will greatly affect the quality of life in the Crescenta Valley. There are far more responsible solutions.