Smog heaven

Here comes the fall—finally!—and with it comes cool days and cozy sweater nights. What better time is there to look back at this Sacramento summer and consider, basically, how much it sucked?

We weren’t bothered by the fact that it was hot as hell—the fifth-hottest summer in Sacramento history. The heat is endurable. What we found intolerable was the choking smog.

Never before in our recollection have our skies been so over-the-top polluted, with the dirty haze gathering above us like stagnant pea soup in the bowl of our air basin. The constant brownish-yellow haze made us sick—in body and spirit—and it forced kids to come off the playgrounds because they might be damaging their lungs just playing soccer.

What happened?

Some of the worsening was due to lax enforcement of air-pollution laws. Even serious industrial violators of air-pollution standards got little more than a slap on the wrist when they violated the rules.

But ultimately drivers—and we mean planning policies that encourage mindless growth and more driving—must shoulder the blame. Despite current regulations on vehicle emissions, most smog still stems from non-industrial sources—i.e., too many cars. Those planning the region’s growth and transportation future simply must consider air quality a top priority, not a sideline consideration. As smart growth advocates have said for years, the key to stemming our air pollution and traffic problems is to grow in a way that discourages sprawl by vastly improving public-transportation options and building housing along public-transit corridors whenever possible. Another key would be to increase government support for alternative fuel vehicles.

The region’s air-quality experts are banking on incremental changes to solve the problem—i.e., forcing the retirement of old diesel engines, encouraging public transportation and advertising “spare the air” days. These reforms should be carried out, but it’s hard to see them making much difference in the absence of a sweeping priority shift on the part of local and state lawmakers and relevant agency officials.

Not all is bleak on the air front. We’re pleased that the state Senate just approved AB 2637, authored by Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced), which will require Bay Area drivers to run their vehicles through the more-restrictive Smog Check 2 program, like drivers here in the Valley do. State air-quality experts have found that smog produced in the Bay Area migrates downwind to regions like the Sacramento Valley, and that’s not fair.

The federal government has classified the Valley’s air-pollution problem as “severe.” If we fail to meet the federal air standard in 2005, the feds will change the listing of our problem from “severe” to “extreme.” If the summer of 2002 taught us anything, it’s that we’re headed straight to that terrible new delineation.

Sacramentans, do we really want to go there?