A new book pops the lid on the dirtiest scandal Los Angeles has ever seen. The MNN exclusive excerpt.
Wed, Feb 25 2009 at 5:03 AM
Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, by journalist Chip Jacobs and environmental spokesman William J. Kelly, chronicles the history and impact of smog in LA, exposing the dirty facts behind the unparalleled crises and the ways in which the city tried to combat it. This history explores the fate of a culture whose addiction to cars and mass manufacturing has shrouded cities like LA in thick layers of smog, quite literally changing the face of the earth. MNN is proud to present your exclusive excerpt.
Chapter One: State of Siege
The beast you couldn’t stab fanned its poison across the waking downtown. Cunning and silent, its gray mist engulfed buildings and streetcars, obscuring the sun and killing all sense of direction as it assaulted Los Angeles’ citizenry with a face-stinging burn. Through nobody realized it then, the mystery cloudbank would rattle the planet—making “green” a cause, not just a color—but first there was the suffering, a city full of it. Inhaling the viscous stuff socked folks with instant allergies whether they had them before or not, eyes welled, throats rasped, hands grasped for hankies and for answers. On July 8, 1943, crowds from Grand Avenue to Union Station muttered surprise at the abruptness of the confounding haze, later mouthing anger at whoever was responsible. The pall, which seemed to have lunged from everywhere and nowhere at once, was a real day-wrecker. After a few hours, what had been a steamy West Coast morning in the town that had shredded notions that one place couldn’t have it all felt more like a party crashed by industrial fire.
Peoples’ attempted escapes from the noxious cloud bred hair-raising street drama. Blinded drivers jerked from side to side to avoid collisions. Mothers snatched up frightened children into ornate lobbies for shelter. If it was hard on pedestrians, it was hellish for the beat cops supervising public safety, let alone for any dangling window-washers. Whatever had summarily blanketed downtown was reminiscent of a harsh, pea-soup London fog. Then again, this was Southern California, where fabulous sunshine was a birthright. Try telling that to the beast.
From within the horn-honking turmoil spread a wild rumor that the cloudbank meant war—chemical munitions the Japanese had lobbed in a sneak attack. With Pearl Harbor and the Imperial Navy’s shelling of Santa Barbara, might this be the first salvo against L.A.? Was mustard gas next? By hour two, the tendrils of the murky climes had thickened and widened, edging toward the northern foothills, which the big-spenders lived against the national forest’s piney backdrop. An irritating haze had intermittently gripped the central city since the turn of the century. Never a crisis before, it was fodder for blue ribbon committees and the reason for a drawer full of ordinances targeting smoke, soot, and odors. Now the stuff had re-materialized with a vengeance and, maybe, an agenda. Deprived of the sweet air they’d taken for granted, tens of thousands of Angelenos hacked: the thin and sickly, the corpulent money-men of Spring Street, jug-eared Boy Scouts, grimy trench diggers, haberdashers, transplanted Okies. A judge furious that acrid air had invaded his courtroom threatened to adjourn for the day, the docket be damned.
City health inspectors instructed, even shushed Angelenos not to overreact. A focused crackdown, they said, should make the hijacked sun reappear. Engineers suspected that a rogue factory had leaked the gases, which the freakishly warm weather then trapped around the city. To officials’ delight, easy breathing returned the next day with the sunny skies. Relief and even corny humor rippled through the City of Angels. The Los Angeles Times, then Southern California’s archconservative conscience, joked that the onslaught was the product of “sulfurous fumes from a heated meeting in the mayor’s office” over streetcar-strike negotiations. The laughing, however, was not universal. One councilman, risking the Cassandra crown in a land of optimism, warned they had better stem the recurring attacks or brace the city frittering into a “deserted village.” Balderdash, replied Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a judicious, owlish man whose forte was legislative nuance and stem-winding speeches. Angelenos had chosen Bowron and his progressive, good-government plank after a police and vice scandal doomed his predecessor. Bowron could sense people’s jumpiness about whether the fume-beast might spring again, so in August the mayor provided a fatherly guarantee. There would be, he promised, “an entire elimination” of the vexing plume within four months.
So began the official campaign to make Los Angeles’ air sparkle uninterrupted. If you had predicted then that the air-shed would remain hideously unhealthy sixty-five years later, somebody might’ve questioned your lucidity, perhaps even your patriotism. It was all about belief. When smog collared in the city in the early 1940s, local government assessed it a moderate nuisance as fixable as a pothole-chewed boulevard. Los Angeles—America’s newest industrial powerhouse, not just its redoubt of Hollywood cool—had, after all, a military to arm and a neon future to invent. After the first batch of rulemaking accomplished little, a troupe of politicians from Bowron to eventually Ronald Reagan enacted progressively tougher rules that they expected would give the people back their sky. Smog, though, had a knack from dragging these expectations into exasperation, for inverting cheery promises into broken ones. As the years passed, the chemical air humbled many of the countermeasures against it with tenacity and guile, sowing discord among its victims, be they aggrieved family men or scapegoated industrialists. They knew smog would have its say into whether Southern California represented a land of the future or a civic flash-in-the-pan, and influence it would. Just when you thought it had lifted, it would strike harder, smudging the West Coast dream with a vapory char.
Not to fear, big voices proclaimed. America’s technological ingenuity had throttled the Axis and now was putting astronauts into orbit and push-button appliances into kitchens. Science held the answer to pure air without requiring disruptive lifestyle changes. Los Angeles, as such, converted itself into the world’s first-ever laboratory for smog destruction, its millions of inhabitants the test subjects. But, that’s getting ahead of the story.
In the summer of 1943, the city’s engineering department readied itself to apprehend the guilty. Out in the field, testers collected a hodgepodge of airborne samples – ammonia, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, dust, chlorine – that would’ve been impressive if the men had not been so baffled about their origin. Most Angelenos, sweating rent, their focus on family and overseas combat, were disinterested in the chemistry of what was making them sniffle and tear. They just wanted their outdoors back. Regrettably, when Los Angeles’ City Hall finally fingered the source of the returning fumebank, it fingered the wrong culprit. This rashness had some justification. Southern California’s dry, crystal-fresh air was the dominant characteristic of the upbeat metropolitan personality. It was God-given advantage, central to lifestyle and commerce, worth practically any defense.
L.A. consequently burst into the unchartered world of air-pollution abatement less like Raymond Chandler’s shrew detective Philip Marlowe and more like gunslinger John Dillinger. When spot inspections, triangulated coughing, and grimy drapes all pointed in the same direction – a Southern California Gas Co. factory east of downtown – authorities assumed it was the sole villain. Blame the obscure Aliso Street plant for shooting phenol and benzol from misfiring generators, they said. After a September 9 episode of wickedly gray air – the Times dubbed it a “daylight dimout,” the day thousands “wept, sneezed, and coughed” from “man-made hay fever” – Bowron snarled that he’d put an end to it. His men would slap code violations on the plant if the irritating fumes continued. The only reason inspectors had not already padlocked the factory was that it was a cog in the rubber-manufacturing cycle the military needed. Plant grit blistering the paint-jobs on nearby cars unnerved the mayor about its effects on delicate humans. Managers of nearby hotels and restaurants harbored their own fears, aghast to find that the air had splat black, greasy residue on their curtains and furniture. “The problem is fumes,” stressed councilman John Baumgartner. “There is no question that the main cause is the butadiene – so why beat around the bush?” Determined, city attorneys burned the midnight oil to return the city – including its dirty sofas – to normal.
The feds were perspiring, too. They understood that Los Angeles, with its $9 billion in military contracts, was an armaments-production hotbed – not some backwater in revolt. They dispatched Col. Bradley Dewey, the U.S. “Rubber Czar,” to the West Coast for emergency consoling. The squat, white-haired Dewey could work a room. Speaking inside the starch-linen environs of the California Club, he told the assembled audience that the gas company was close to perfecting new fume-cutting equipment that’d make things right. It had to; the factory was irreplaceable. With the bulk of the world’s natural rubber supply in the hands of the Japanese military at the time, the U.S. armed forces had become desperate for synthetic versions of it. Military brass had selected the West Coast, with its strategic location and manufacturing base, as the nexus for expanding production of the versatile, stretchy material. With that in mind, the Aliso Street plant had undergone a $14 million conversion that enabled it to mass produce crude butadiene, which then was used as feedstock in artificial rubber. Dewey stressed the connection between that operation and the plight of American combat troops overseas. After softening the crowd up with patriotic guilt, he promised breathable improvement by December. If not, he said, “You can call me a bum and I will close down the plant myself.”
Dewey’s peace mission convinced Los Angeles and Pasadena to drop their prepared injunctions against the gas company. For the rest of ’43, with the factory offline for retrofits and the city bearing down on other flagrant smoke sources, the skies shimmered again in pale-blue majesty. These basic steps, the Times chest-thumped, had liberated the town.” As if on punchline, the murk returned.
When the groans subsided, civic government mobilized with a battery of new entities and proclamations suggesting an offensive against a conquerable adversary. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a powerful board of five unglamorous “little kings” who oversaw the county’s unincorporated sections, appointed a “smoke-and-fumes” commission. In 1945, they shotgunned through a county ordinance limiting smoky effluents from backyard trash-burning, rubbish collection, diesel truck exhaust, and orchard heaters called “smudge pots.” The county grand jury acted next, convening to investigate the stuffy, poker-room conditions flaring around the region on hotter days. L.A. City Hall took it even further, christening a new department: the Bureau of Air Pollution Control. Government rustlings were good for the public outlook. For the folks at the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, salesmen of the gangbusters economy, they were, conversely, a cause for slight uneasiness. They preferred a go-slow approach where industrial cleanups were voluntary.
Whatever the method, it needed to be snappy, because the gray overhang was shrouding more communities than ever before. In the mid-1940s – when smog took a backbeat to issues of housing, crime, and traffic – people’s hankering for yesterday’s air went beyond aggravated sinuses and runny noses. It was about what they couldn’t see on the bad days, including landmarks or even a street sign a half-mile away. A wistful aesthetic about such lost scenery trickled into neighborhoods, riling up old-timers and nature lovers sentimental about the beach-to-mountains panoramas characteristic of so few places in the world. To them, the blocked skies were tantamount to acne on a beauty queen. It hadn’t been that long ago those homeowners had bragged about being able to make out Catalina Island twenty miles offshore on a cloudless day. Now washed-out hues supplanted those memories. Heavy smog bleached the terrain, making it seem as if somebody had swiped the boldest colors from nature’s palette. Instead of misty morning light, a blah brownish-gray filled windshields and bay windows. Spectacular sunsets of brilliant orange and noble crimson blurred to dull peach. Lush, emerald-green hill-sides and jutting cocoa-colored mountains ebbed to silhouetted nothingness. No need telling that to the forestry department; it abandoned a lookout tower in Monrovia, just east of Pasadena, because fire-spotters couldn’t see much from sixty feet up anymore. The timing was ironic. Just as Hollywood magicians were perfecting Technicolor to infuse lifelike colors into movies, the outdoor canvas languished in dispiriting monochrome. On some mornings, the top floor of L.A.’s signature City Hall pierced the clinging filth like a cork bobbing in diseased water.
For writers, it was post-Industrial Age-noir. “Like a dirty gray blanket flung across the city, a dense, eye-stinging layer of smoke dimmed in the sun,” ranted one scribe in September 1946.” Slowly, a fringe of agitated suburbanites vocalized doubts that a few plant adjustments and regulations would revive L.A.’s picture-postcard vistas. In Altadena, a fee-spirited hamlet northwest of Pasadena, the gunk chased residents indoors. “You can see the fumes, just crawl up the hills,” explained property-rights leader James Clark. The district attorney’s office, acting then as both smog cop and public guardian, had advised the Altadenans to relax; the “obnoxious fumes” had mainly a psychological effect. Clark, responding cleverly, invited the D.A. to travel there, then, to “get (his) lungs full of psychology.”
Curmudgeons notwithstanding, there was no wide clamoring for hearings or action. Los Angeles’ middle class was still sanguine about the future in 1946. One denizen, expressing the popular sentiment, believed that the same “capable leadership and patriotic endeavor” marshaled against the Axis in World War II would defeat this new “common enemy.” Good Samaritans offered their assistance against the foe. Earnest requests for fresh air swept around as well, including a petition from thirty Pasadena City College students displeased that they were inhaling dark particles in their gym class. Publicity chasers eagerly pawed at their opportunity. One young couple relayed a heartwarming story about how they were protecting their newborn by taking him up above the grime in their private plane. Right behind them was a pair of British and Dutch aviators on a cross-country tour. They claimed they could barely see where to land. Once they had, they evidently found a phone to call the Times.
Nobody had to communicate the fact that the root cause of the gray air was proving harder to pin down than first imagined. Public engineers, having exonerated the butadiene plant after smog wafted even when the facility went offline, subsequently veered in another direction. Their focus was still enforcement, not chasing theories. One doozy had emanated from the president of the American Institute of Chemists, Gustav Egloff, who speculated that the improper combustion of gasoline-related products might be causing the mist. Ignoring that possibility, the engineers charged that oil refineries and smelters in a lunchpail industrial grid south of L.A. city limits were responsible for the bulk of the “the fumes epidemic.” Harry Kunkel, the city’s wrinkled “air pollution control” chief (before there was much control), reckoned his men were onto something. The vapors there had already overcome twenty-three truckers, which didn’t seem to be a coincidence. When Kunkel, a former World War I military pilot, inspected a nearby Long Beach foundry, the bleachy stench reminded him of French battlefield gases. Following his instinct, he bailed out of there fast.
Kunkel stayed on at his job past retirement to attack the mystifying crud. His office, in fact, rolled out the planet’s first “smogometer,” a machine that extracted foreign-matter from the air. Dandy sounding, it was barely useful, as was the case with most analytical instruments of the era. Kunkel’s meatiest contribution was putting his office’s manpower into the effort. The Los Angeles Police Department chipped in with recruits itself, and Bowron asked the 200 chemists in the Civilian Defense Corps to help, too. In one sense, officials were militarizing the offensive by assigning so many tangential people to it. The head of the school district even said students would join the effort. The D.A.’s office also sought aerial reconnaissance, and secured it by commissioning a squadron of private pilots to scout and report smoking chimneys and burning dumps. For all that, what leaders really desired was rulebook authority. Among other suspicions, they believed military contractors were hiding behind the war to skirt blame for their emission.
There were just so many complexities, in particular the apprehension the fumebank stirred with its relentless drift toward the suburbs. Like a damaging high tide, it rolled in and ebbed out, leaving some communities unscarred, others regularly abused. Citizens living downwind of the smokestack towers a half-county to the north and east often felt clobbered by them. In Azusa, a rural, hillside city northeast of downtown, severe air had already prompted two small evacuations by 1946. Bedroom towns in and around the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains were so alarmed about the creepy tendrils that they pointedly told the L.A. politicians to either discipline their industries or brace for a “relentless” backlash. Seeking consensus, county supervisors organized a meeting with twenty-six cities in the spring of 1946 about a uniform anti-air-pollution law. Nothing concrete emerged, and in October, hundreds of “aroused” Pasadenans held a protest march. It wasn’t a full-scale uprising, but the message from suburbs was powerful: united they stood, wheezing they’d fall. L.A. authorities immediately sent out the message after the demonstration. Vernon, South Gate, Torrance, and El Segundo – nondescript manufacturing cities that had flouted cleanup calls for their refineries and steel mills like defiant teenagers – were polluting on borrowed time. Southern California, so it seemed, still trusted that a crackdown was all that was required to make the weather pleasant again. Experts trekked in to furnish advice: Dr. Edward Weidlein, head of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Institute, came, as did members from the U.S. Bureau of Mines. They were of little help. Still, most people thought that L.A. had time to spare, assuming that “get-tough” policies and engineering breakthroughs would purify the airshed. For now, it was just periodic misery, neither meteorological curse nor foreshadowing of unhappy days ahead. In a way, it was understandable. Los Angeles had rearranged nature in the past, so why no again?
Consider how it imported a natural resource to its parched terrain. In 1898, then-mayor Frederick Eaton realized his city had nowhere near the water it’d need to prosper, and appointed his buddy William Mulholland as superintendent of the just-formed Los Angeles Department of Water & Power to handle the predicament. The two men spotted the liquidity they needed a couple hundred miles north in the Owens Valley area, where runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountains was abundant. Eaton lobbied President Teddy Roosevelt to halt a federal irrigation system for farmers there, while the cagey Mulholland, doling out bribes and misinformation, won the water rights needed for an aqueduct. The channel was as complex to design as the Panama Canal, and it certainly was historic. When workers completed it in 1913, the aqueduct expedited the city’s annexation of the rural San Fernando Valley and other development ambitions. Los Angeles grabbed so much water that Owens Valley felt betrayed. In 1924, armed farmers from that area dynamited part of the system to register their fury. Strained relations between the two areas persist to this day. Nonetheless, Mulholland said of the water pouring from his engineering feat, “There it is. Take it.” He had demonstrated that a city could bend nature to meet its demands. Before and after this water-grab, men here dredged massive harbors from silt, dragged a cosmos-searching observatory onto a mountaintop, smashed flight-speed records, and harnessed ocean currents for electricity. A near-religious devotion to technology had made Southern California’s nature seem malleable.
Excerpted with permission from Overlook Press.
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