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Photograph by George Sakkestad

The Air Out There: Given the EPA's penchant for stretching deadlines and the MTC's inability to shift people out of their cars and into public transit, Earthjustice's lawsuit may amount to little more than hot air.

Gasping For Air

A local environmental organization says that for years our government agencies have been breaking their own clean air laws--and it's time for the EPA to do its job

By Dara Colwell

AS A SCIENCE TEACHER, Harland Sethe has always been a vigilant observer of air quality. The now retired eighth-grade teacher, who taught for 33 years in Cupertino Union School District, would draw huge diagrams of global warming on his blackboard--pictures of factories, cars, aerosols and refrigerators--and the gases--monoxide, carbon monoxide and benzene--they emitted into the atmosphere. He would also describe to his students the small, delicate hole that had appeared in the layer of ozone hovering above the Antarctic, discussing its effects on the body's physiology.

Beyond his job trying to make science meaningful to kids, the air out there was personal for Sethe. As a long-term asthma sufferer battling sensitivity to the environment, Sethe was constantly aware of air quality. In the early 1980s, Sethe remembers standing in front of the classroom with his heart beating rapidly, unable to breathe. It was his first asthma attack. Just a few years earlier, the teacher began noticing how many of his students (at Kennedy Middle School) who joined the science department's annual hike to Yosemite had noted asthma problems on their medical forms. "The numbers increased every year," he says. "I began looking over student records and realized that the county's air quality was getting poorer."

While Sethe admits he has no hard facts--save two decades of observation--to back his claim, research by organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council indicate asthma is on the rise, increasing nearly 40 percent nationally among children between 1981 and 1988. What's more, the severity of asthma has also risen, with the death rate from asthma climbing 118 percent from 1980 to 1993. In San Jose, with six major--and heavily used--freeways and a valley topography that traps polluted air, the quality of what we breath every day is 40 percent worse than the Bay Area average. "I grew up in Washington [state], where the air is pristine," Sethe says. "I wasn't born with asthma--living here over the years has left a lasting effect on my health."

Paradoxically, certain statistics will show that air quality in the Bay Area has actually improved over the last 30 years due to cleaner fuels and stricter emission standards. Yet unsafe levels of ozone continue to pollute the region's air. In November, the Bay Area missed its fourth consecutive deadline to meet national ozone standards established by Congress in the Clean Air Act of 1970. The previous deadlines--set in 1975, 1987 and 1996--were extended by the Environmental Protection Agency to allow local agencies, including the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC)--the organization responsible for the region's transportation planning--adequate time to comply. Aside from a brief hiatus in 1995, those standards have never been met. And Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, acting on the behalf of several environmental and social justice groups, is tired of waiting.

This month the organization announced plans to take both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission to court in January for failing to improve air quality here. "It's crystal clear local agencies are not doing their job," says Earthjustice attorney Deborah Reames. "It's time for the EPA to play hardball."

Failing and Flailing

SINCE CONGRESS first enacted the Clean Air Act, establishing a "healthy" national ozone standard, the Bay Area has failed time and again to clean up its air--ranking as the nation's eighth smoggiest major metropolitan area only four years ago.

And ozone is a serious toxin. It causes acute respiratory problems, aggravates asthma and can even decrease lung capacity in healthy adults by 15 percent after a few hours of low-level exposure.

Although the EPA initially gave the Bay Area a thumbs-up for being up to standard in 1995--20 years after the original Congressional deadline--within a matter of days, the region again exceeded national ozone standards. The area was redesignated in 1998, meaning that the EPA reversed its decision because the air quality was still lousy. So lousy, in fact, that 17 violations of the standard were monitored between 1994 and 1996, including 43 occasions when the ozone threshold was exceeded. The national ozone standard allows for no more than three such occasions in three years.

Despite noting in the 1998 Federal Register that ozone levels posed a significant public health concern and that "the severity of the air quality problem makes redesignation the appropriate action," the EPA's final "action" was to give the Bay Area until November 2000 to clean up its act. Within that period, Livermore recorded 10 excursions over the ozone standard, Concord counted five and San Martin marked four. Once again, the latest deadline went unmet.

"Deadlines are critical; they really drive improvements," says Celia Bloomfield, environmental protection specialist for the California EPA, based in San Francisco. "We are very concerned the Bay Area continues to violate for ozone, but it's a question of 'well, we want to reduce emissions quickly, what's the best way to get there?'" However, the EPA, which hasn't flexed its muscle in the past, has allowed yet another critical target date to elapse while neglecting to force the issue. Technically, if local agencies fail to come up with an acceptable plan within 18 months, the EPA can yank federal highway funds.

"This is the fourth deadline local agencies have blown; it's clear we're getting one crummy plan after the next," says Reames. "The EPA is just looking the other way when it has ultimate authority to step in. We want to underscore that this is not just a slap on the wrist--that there are serious repercussions."

Driven to Distraction

THE MTC ENTERS the picture because, together with the Air District and the Association of Bay Area Governments, the agency is responsible for creating a compliance plan for ozone standards. Within the plan, the MTC must address mobile source pollution or emissions coming from cars and trucks, which release up to 90 percent of the carbon monoxide and more than 50 percent of the hazardous pollutants found in urban air. Thus far, these plans, including the proposed 1999 Attainment Plan, have failed to achieve clean air.

Additionally, MTC, which is responsible for the region's transportation planning, has made a longstanding--and as yet unfulfilled--commitment to increase transit ridership throughout the Bay Area by 15 percent. The MTC made this "obligation" back in 1982 but the promise has proven extremely wishful thinking. Today, despite a 30 percent increase in the area's population, there are actually fewer people riding public transit than there were two decades ago. According to the MTC's own figures, transit ridership has plunged 4 percent below 1983 levels. Considering this area's tremendous growth, that points to further reliance on the car.

The MTC predicts a 29 percent increase in the Bay Area's population over the next 20 years, a 40 percent increase in how many miles people will travel, and a 249 percent hike in time we'll spend stuck in traffic--yet, apparently, there is no forward-looking strategy to accommodate such growth. Exacerbating the situation, the MTC admits on its own website that "despite its pragmatic approach, [it] lacks the funds to fully meet the costs for maintenance and operations for the transportation system." That "lack" amounts to a budget shortfall of $6 billion.

"There's only so much money that is available to us under the law. We can't print money," says Steve Hemminger, the MTC's executive director. "But within that budget, two-thirds is committed to public transit. We can't force people to ride the bus or the train, but what we can do is support the maintenance and expansion of those services--we think we're doing our part."

Earthjustice obviously doesn't. "MTC committed to increase ridership 15 percent from 1983 figures--now they are trying to argue that the deadline has come and gone, but they don't have to do anything about it," Reames says. "It's straightforward; we want the MTC to commit to what it said it would do."

Hemminger, who believes the state legislature needs to address larger issues such as sprawl and further reducing mobile emissions, points out that in recent years, large-scale economic and demographic factors have led to an increase in people relying on cars, such as cheaper gas prices and relocating away from urban centers where public transit systems operate best. But even the EPA says this is a hackneyed stance.

"We've heard from the MTC that hey, it's not them, it's the wrong place for the conversation, but we don't entirely agree," says Bloomfield. "They are a co-partner in developing an air quality plan and, in the past, all reductions have come from stationary sources. The MTC can make a contribution right now and when groups like Earthjustice bring it to the public's attention, it's helpful."

Even so, the EPA has rarely forced the MTC to put its money where its mouth is and act.

Two Steps Forward

DESPITE OZONE'S harmful effects, seducing people out of their cars has proven an exceedingly difficult task. Mobility issues, which affect sprawl, the need to build into suburban fringes, and subsequently, air quality, now lie at the core of solving air pollution problems. "Everyone agrees the first and easiest step is to make public transportation more inviting," says Stanley Yung, research associate at Earthjustice. Such incentives would include increasing the reliability and frequency of service and making transportation more pleasant to ride in.

Equally, disincentives for driving could accelerate a shift toward increased public transit use. "The ones that get bandied about the most are raising the toll on bridges during peak metering hours and increasing gas taxes. Make the true cost of driving reflect its costs to the public's health," Yung says. By bringing suit against the MTC, Earthjustice hopes the organization will have to revamp its transportation choices.

Prof. Elizabeth Deakin, at UC-Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning, also believes the MTC has the ability to direct funds to projects that reduce emissions. She says basic strategies could include reducing the traffic conditions that lead to high emissions (such as stop-and-go driving), making alternate modes competitive through cost-effective transit, and creating policies that condition transportation funds on transit and pedestrian-supportive land use planning.

David Ismali, director of Advanced Transportation Technologies based at West Valley College, works with companies to encourage employees to telecommute or work flextime, reducing their need to travel during peak commute hours. "You have to make incentives for people that are worthy enough to get them out of their cars. For example, providing a guaranteed ride home if that person is in a carpool--that's huge," he says. "If a child's sick, that parent has to get home."

While Ismali supports Earthjustice's tactic, he feels the blame for increasing reliance on the car goes deeper than the MTC. "This is a societal problem. It's the responsibility of the companies, of the MTC, of the transit operators and it's the responsibility of every individual driver [to make the change]. At a certain point, we all have to take responsibility," he says. "Air doesn't have borders. What happens here impacts the state."

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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