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Breathe Deep (and then thank the EPA that you can)

A hazy downtown Los Angeles on Christmas Eve 1948 | USC Libraries Special Collections - Los Angeles Examiner Collection

The postcard on my desk is almost 40 years old. Angelenos of a certain age will recognize it--a wide-angled, aerial shot of the downtown core of Los Angeles and its then, much-more modest skyline. Framed by the intersection of the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways, the whole scene is muffled in a brown smear of smog. Barely visible in the deep background, just poking above the thick toxic stew, is a snow-capped Mt. Baldy, the tallest of the San Gabriels. Reads the arch caption: "Greetings from Los Angeles."

I first spotted the card in the fall of 1972 when I came to Southern California to attend Pitzer College, and immediately sent a steady stream of them to family and friends back east. They got its black humor, which I reinforced when I confessed (and perhaps bragged) that my dorm room was within five miles of Mt. Baldy, yet I almost never saw its bold face.

Now I see it every day, often with stunning clarity, as if the entire range was etched out of a blue true dream of sky. How strange, then, that Republicans in Congress are maneuvering to gut the Clean Air Act, stop the EPA from regulating Greenhouse gases, and, in a special affront to Los Angeles, roll back the federal agency's ability to monitor tailpipe emissions. It's enough to make you gasp for air.

Their regressive political agenda, designed to savage public health, ought to infuriate any who lived--and suffered--through the dark-sky years that hung over SoCal like a pall. It took decades of fierce struggle on the local, state, and national levels to build the political capital and legislative clout needed to write the binding regulations, a battle that began in the late 1940s and which is richly chronicled in Chip Jacobs' and William J. Kelly's Smogtown (2008).

It took just as long to create and fund the federal Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the local South Coast Air Quality Management District (1976). Neither organization had an easy birth: President Nixon created the EPA with reluctance and under considerable pressure; and Governor Ronald Reagan twice vetoed the creation of SCAQMD, which only came into being with a stroke of Governor Jerry Brown's pen. We have blue skies--when we have them--only because of the robust regulatory regime that emerged out of this fraught politics of smog.

We need to remember this history as well because nothing else accounts for the steady uptick in Southern California's air quality. After all, what my vintage postcard, in its didactic back text, asserts were the central contributing factors to the region's then-poisonous air, remains true: "Millions of people driving millions of cars plus temperature inversion provide Los Angeles with a near perfect environment for the production and containment of photochemical smog." One result of this disturbing mix of technology and meteorology, it warns, is that the "LA Basin inversion acts as a giant lid over the smog, inhabitants and visitors."

You know what happened next, and all-too frequently. As the heated air compressed, it produced intense stomach-souring, eye-burning smog that made lives miserable in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys; choked downtown; and obscured the HOLLYWOOD sign. Much of this pollution ended up in the Inland Empire, pressed east by the prevailing on-shore breezes, where it mixed with what my friends and I dubbed the "Smell of the Ick," a nauseating brew that Kaiser's Fontana steelworks routinely vented. On such days parents kept their kids out of school; athletes trained indoors; citrus growers and sugar-beet producers watched in dismay as their crops withered; the elderly and young crowded into doctors' offices and hospital ERs with throbbing heads and shortness of breath. Los Angeles was flatlining.

The citizenry resuscitated it. They were mobilized, as Jacobs and Kelly recount, by such groups as the League of Women Voters, and an ad-hoc battalion of moms, poor and well off, who battled against the city's tone-deaf power elite. Farmers and fathers added their voices to the growing outcry that LA Times cartoonist Frank Interlandi stoked in panel after panel (several of which can be seen here). In one of these, a brutal 1967 creation, swirling black clouds drop a set of gagging Angelenos to the sidewalk. They collapse before a newspaper stand, its headline screaming: "Smog Control Board to Act; Deaths Spur Activity." Interlandi's contempt for ineffectual pols and their fatal indifference was palpable.

Differently effective was the path-breaking analyses of scientists at the Riverside Citrus Experiment Station (progenitor of UC-Riverside), who identified auto and truck emissions as the source of agricultural die-off. So, too, with the innovative work of a renegade Caltech scientist, Arie Haagen-Smit, a biochemist who developed the first techniques to analyze smog's chemical composition and thus target its origins. His critical research ran afoul of the potent auto industry but also gave protestors vital data to support their case in the streets, at city hall, and before the judiciary.

The combination of grassroots organizing, scientific investigations, and a galvanized public proved potent. However slow that process may have been, however incomplete its results, without this engaged anger the quality of life in Los Angeles--and a lot of other American cities--would be greatly diminished.

Just how diminished becomes clear in a recent retrospective study that EPA conducted, charting the savings in lives and money that can be credited to the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Acts. Without these two bills, by 1990 "an additional 205,000 Americans would have died prematurely and millions more would have suffered illnesses ranging from mild respiratory symptoms to heart disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, and other severe respiratory problems."

Of special interest to Los Angeles and other auto-centric communities is the EPA's finding that "the lack of Clean Air Act controls on the use of leaded gasoline would have resulted in major increases in child IQ loss and adult hypertension, heart disease, and stroke." The total fiscal benefit of these regulations ranges from $6 trillion and $50 trillion, making it mindblowingly obvious just how invaluable, how priceless, these legislative initiatives have been.

And how utterly foolish their Republican detractors were then, and are now. Indeed, that's one reason why I have kept the iconic smog postcard, taping it to every desk I've ever worked on. Once a sick joke, a reminder that back in the day we had neither the political will nor the survival instinct to protect ourselves from ourselves, it has morphed in meaning. It now evokes how far we have come, how indebted we are to the men and women who fought against the big car companies, rebutted their kept scientists, and took down a legion of their political lackeys. It was they who convinced Congress that the environment mattered, that federal regulation and well-funded enforcement mechanisms were essential tools in the defense of the people's health, safety, and welfare.

We are the lucky beneficiaries of that generation's principled activism. It would be nice if our children and grandchildren will be able to say the same about ours.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

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