Three-peat Heat

Start your engines: The latest pollution pennant race is on

While California angrily seeks recompense from Houston energy companies for their alleged profiteering in the state's electricity crisis, a second key battle quietly rages under the radar. This one has the makings of a sporting classic. Houston and Los Angeles once again are neck and neck to be named America's smoggiest city.

Houston got off to a strong start to retain its crown, but L.A. battled back with gutsy performances. On the strength of a high pressure system that enhanced pollution-making conditions early this month, the City of Angels had, as of July 10, surged to a 17 to 13 lead in unhealthy ozone days. Ozone is a key ingredient of smog.

"At this point it's very weather-dependent," says Los Angeles-area meteorologist Joe Cassmassi, speaking of his city's prospects in the ozone derby. "If the weather turns more stagnant than usual, we might have more [unhealthy days] than Houston."

But even die-hard believers concede that L.A. faces an uphill fight. Houston's heavy industry helps stretch the area's smog season into November -- two months longer than its rival's. And Houston tends to streak in late summer. In 1999 the Bayou City notched 19 days of ozone "exceedences" in August, and by Labor Day had overtaken L.A. Houston finished the year with 52 noxious days to L.A.'s 41. For the first time in memory, Los Angeles was dethroned. Our hazy city began a dynasty that continued through last year.

"All hell broke loose in August," recalls Neil Carman, the clean air director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter.

Carman notes that even though Houston trails this year, the city is on pace to better its own '99 and '00 records. He predicts that L.A. will falter as usual in September.

This year Houston scored early when a monitor at Highway 6 on the far west side recorded an ozone reading of 125 parts per billion (ppb) on March 13. That is the minimum level to qualify as harmful, but it's sufficient to generate warnings for active children and people with respiratory problems to limit "prolonged outdoor exertion."

The West Coast giant finally got on the board May 6 with a modest reading of 130 ppb. L.A. rallied and took a 6-4 lead into June. The perennial powerhouse notched five more unanswered points in early June, including one formidable reading of 180 ppb.

Meanwhile, Houston was getting creamed by Tropical Storm Allison, an unpropitious event for ozone production.

When the rains stopped, Houston reverted to championship form. Aided by scorching temperatures and minimal breezes, the city fought back with eight days of excessive ozone.

"When the wind goes down, our emissions aren't diluted," explains Gene McMullen, assistant chief of the city's Bureau of Air Quality Control.

L.A. recorded two more unhealthy smog days before going on the season's longest streak -- June 30 through July 3 -- to take a five-day lead. Houston did not strike again until July 6, when a monitor in Baytown registered 127 ppb in the early afternoon.

Ozone is created when sunlight reacts with pollutants like nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds. Plenty of sun, warm weather and contaminants have helped make Houston and L.A. the smog powers they are. While the rivals enjoy similar environmental qualities, their playing styles differ greatly. The vast Los Angeles region has a population of 16.4 million, three and a half times greater than the sprawling eight-county Houston area. L.A., known for its freeway mazes, lies in a mountain-rimmed basin that traps auto exhaust, which the sun transforms into ozone.

With roughly half of the nation's petrochemical industry and 25 percent of its gasoline refining, Houston hits for power as well as average. Such was the case in October 1999 when a monitor in Deer Park attained a whopping reading of 251 ppb, triggering coughing fits and asthma attacks among nearby students. So far this year, Houston's top reading was 175 ppb in May -- unspectacular by past standards but enough to make health officials warn the general population against too much outdoor activity.

Purists such as Bryan Lambeth, senior meteorologist for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, point out that Houston would easily outperform Los Angeles if the two cities had an equal number of ozone monitors. Los Angeles has about double the number of gauges. The bulk of Houston's 23 monitors are clustered in Harris County, with only a handful in surrounding counties. Lambeth estimates that with more monitors the area would record as many as 20 more unhealthy days per year.

"There are some pretty large holes in our network," he says.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles has handicapped its output by enacting tough environmental measures. The city has the cleanest cars and gasoline in the country and some of the most tightly regulated industries, Cassmassi says. (The fact that the state didn't build any new power plants until recently also contributed to cleaner air in California, not to mention this year's rolling blackouts.)

Houston's refineries are at least a decade behind those in the Los Angeles area when it comes to pollution control, environmentalists say. For years area leaders accepted smog as a tolerable byproduct of economic growth. However, the threat of losing billions in federal highway funds -- along with the stigma of being the smog capital -- goaded officials into tackling the problem more aggressively.

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