In recent days, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power issued a press release to complain about having to clean up the Owens Dry
Lake dust, the worst pollution source of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. LA water diversions created the dusty lake bed. Although LADWP agreed to a systematic plan to clean up the hazard, now officials don’t want to finish the clean up. The LA press release indicates they don’t want to spend any more money. The following is Great Basin Air Pollution Control District Director Ted Schade’s response:
Why won’t LADWP finish cleaning up our air?
By Theodore D. Schade
Why is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) not living up to the promises it made to the Owens Valley? In a recent press release, LADWP sings its own praises, yet makes excuses as to why it should not have to finish the job of controlling the dust caused by its water diversions from Owens Lake—the largest single source of particulate matter (PM) air pollution in the country.
LADWP has controlled the air pollution from 40 square miles of existing lake bed because the law requires it to. LADWP contractors built thousands of acres of infrastructure and LADWP field staff works hard to operate and maintain the controls. Their efforts have led to about a 90 percent reduction in air pollution levels. For this, all Owens Valley residents should be grateful. I am.
The Owens Lake effort is the largest dust control project in the country—it needs to be. Before LADWP started deploying controls in 2000, dust levels were 100 times the federal standard. Even with the current 90 percent reduction, PM levels are still 10 times higher than the standard. And when LADWP finishes the five square miles it is currently working on, dust levels will still be four times higher than the standard. To meet the federal clean air standard, dust levels have to be reduced by 99 percent and some additional areas of controls are required. Until that happens, Owens Valley air-breathers will be subjected to dust levels that are two to four times as high as the highest levels measured in Los Angeles. The work is nearly complete. Why is LADWP now unwilling to finish the job?
The LADWP editorial claims, “suddenly there seems to be no end.” This is not true. There is no “suddenly” and there is an end. In 1988, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (Great Basin) estimated that controls would be required on about 46.5 square miles of the dried lake bed. And in 1998, LADWP entered into an agreement with Great Basin and committed to reduce lake bed emissions so that the Owens Valley “will attain and maintain federal air quality standards.” They have known for 24 years how much of the lake bed would require controls and they have known for 14 years that the “the end” comes when they meet the clean air standards.
LADWP claims that “Great Basin has a responsibility to develop new dust control methodologies, but has not done so.” In the 1990s, Great Basin did develop the three currently-approved methods to control dust (water, vegetation and gravel). However, air quality regulators have no obligation to develop air pollution controls for air polluters. If the LADWP is unsatisfied with the current approved controls, they have a responsibility to their ratepayers to develop new, effective controls. It is Great Basin’s responsibility to review and approve successful controls.
Yet another of LADWP’s concerns regards “the methodology and accuracy of dust measurements.” The methods used by Great Basin to monitor PM emissions are the most sophisticated methods ever developed for such monitoring. LADWP does not mention that these methods were painstakingly developed with their input or that they signed an agreement that the methods are valid and reasonable. These agreed-upon methods now show that controls are required on an additional 2.9 square miles of dried lake bed. Why is LADWP going back on its promise to rely on these methods?
LADWP states that, at over $1 billion, the cost for dust control has been high. But, the amount of air pollution caused by their water diversions is enormous. Objectively looking at the cost of controls versus the amount of pollution controlled, the cost is reasonable. Over a 25-year period, the cost of controlling Owens Lake air pollution is estimated to be about $1,000 per ton. The South Coast AQMD (where Los Angeles is located) has set a feasible cost effectiveness limit of $5,300 per ton for PM control in its area. If Owens Lake were located in the San Fernando Valley, instead of the Owens Valley, LADWP would be expected to spend up to $5 billion to control the problem.
LADWP states, “We are not suggesting that we back away from these obligations.” But, this is exactly what they have done. They are ignoring previous hard-fought agreements and they are breaking promises. The current LADWP leadership has drawn a line in the dust and is refusing to meet its obligations.
At a recent Great Basin Board meeting, Board Chair and Mono Supervisor Larry Johnston asked LADWP General Manager Ron Nichols why they spend money on legal fees when it could be spent on dust mitigation. Mr. Nichols said, “The cost of legal fees pale in comparison to the cost of dust controls.”
And that is the problem, a historic problem LADWP has with its credibility in keeping promises. LADWP’s actions impact the residents of our communities—our parents and children, healthy and sick, the people the District is charged by law to protect. Its actions also impact our environment—our air is still 10 times more polluted than allowed by law. Rather than spend their resources to complete the job of controlling their pollution and protecting the public and the environment, it seems that LADWP’s leaders would rather pay attorneys to fight their battles.
Great Basin is convinced there is a middle ground where most of both sides’ needs can be met. We encourage City of Los Angeles leaders to engage in this conversation. The air pollution control at Owens Lake should be something we are all proud of, not something attorneys fight over.
February 28, 2012
(Ted Schade is the Air Pollution Control Officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District and has worked on solving the air pollution problem at Owens Lake for the last 22 years.)