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KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego Is Tough On Bad Air

SD County Monitors Bad Air Hot Spots
GuestsBob Kard, is the control officer for the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District. Joy Williams is Research & Community Assistance Director for the Environmental Health Coalition

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Earlier this month, NPR reported on an environment at protection agency watch list for businesses who are chronic violators of the clean air act. The list was kept secret from the public until recently. More than 30 sites in San Diego County are on that list. Joining me are my guests, Bob Kard is the control officer for the San Diego County air pollution control district. Bob, welcome to the show. KARD: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. CAVANAUGH: And joy Williams is research and community assistance director for the environmental health coalition. Welcome. WILLIAMS: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: So Bob, did you know about this EPA list it was basically made public through national public radio and other media? KARD: Actually, I do not think I paid any attention to such a list, and was not aware of it. Although it has no effect on us here, per se. CAVANAUGH: Why? KARD: That list, people get on it after delaying getting into compliance or an agency hasn't taken action. Here in San Diego, we're very proactive, we're doing inspections, monitoring people closely, and should a violation occur, we take immediate action and work to settle the case. And the whole idea with us is that the sooner the violation goes away, the fewer pollutants you have getting into the atmosphere and affecting our quality of life. CAVANAUGH: Why are there any San Diego companies or locations on this list? KARD: There are none. CAVANAUGH: Well, actually there are a few on the EPA list that we have on our website right now. KARD: Well, I'm not sure if you're talking about the toxics release inventory list now or the watch list. CAVANAUGH: Well, I was talking about the map that was released by the EPA with different areas citing different places, showing there was a certain health risk warning level going along with each of those places and you could find out where they were. KARD: I think that is known as the toxics release inventory list. And the EPA quantifies, takes the reports of admissions that are reported to them, and looks at those as well as how hazardous those materials are and publishes it. It does not state anything about health risk. And we have a program in San Diego that does rate health risk from emissions at industrial sites. CAVANAUGH: It does say health warning risk level on the actual map. KARD: Well, first of all, I did see that list, and the toxic release inventory is something we've known about. . But it's not reflective of updated data, first of all, and it doesn't relate to the health risks to individuals here in San Diego County. Upon we actually require under state law here for certain individuals -- or companies, I should say, to do what they call a health risk assess. Ment based on their emissions. And this was an assembly bill passed in 1987. We implemented it here in San Diego in 1989. The result of that program where people have to not only assess or report their emissions and assess the risk to the public, we have had a reduction of 75% of the health risk to people due to those emissions, and about an 85% reduction in actual toxic air contaminants being released. That's a significant reduction. CAVANAUGH: It is a significant reduction, and from what I've heard, the California standards are higher than the national standards for air pollution control; is that right? KARD: Correct. CAVANAUGH: Now, let me take the one business on the list that probably most San Diegans are familiar with. It's solar turbines on harbor drive. Now, it rates, and when you click on it, it says it's highest No. 5 on the EPA's health risk screening group. So I'm wondering, what action does the air pollution control district take in monitoring pollution from solar turbines? KARD: Solar turbines along with many others report to us their emissions on a yearly basis. We know what their emissions are, validate those numbers to make sure their reporting is factual. Solar turbines has done a health risk assessment, and they are below levels where they would have to notify the public of any risk. They're low enough. They've controlled their emissions. And again, that's the difference between what we do and what that toxic release inventory by the EPA does. There's a big difference. We're looking at actual risk based on their emissions, and they're just quantifying everything without really placing a health risk value on it. CAVANAUGH: Okay, let me bring in joy Williams from the environmental health coalition to the conversation. Let me get your take on this so called chronic polluters in San Diego. Do you think enough is being done to monitor them? WILLIAMS: Well, I agree with Bob that we're being more proactive here in California on air toxics. And I think what we really would like to see is that -- a couple of things so you don't get into enforcement kinds of issues as much. And one is pollution prevention so that processes are being redesigned so companies aren't using such toxic materials in the first place. And a lot of that has happened, as Bob pointed out. And secondly that we're designing our land use so that companies that use and emit air toxics are not immediately downwind of residences or homes. And that's not just something that's in the past. In the case of the solar turbines facility on harbor, I understand there's a proposal to put residences within 100 feet of that facility or very close. And we don't think that's a good direction. CAVANAUGH: Would you recommend that residences be built so close to that company? KARD: Not at all. Actually, I was asked this question by the Board of Supervisors, which is also the air pollution control board. What is the issue with that? Right now, solar turbines has an acceptable health risk level. They do not have to notify the public. They don't have to take any further measures. Although I have to say they're doing their best to control emissions. With that, we would never recommend incompatible uses be placed together. I'm all for smart growth, mixed use where the uses are compatible. But to put in this case it was a fat city apartment lost propose forward that area immediately to the east side of solar turbines within 100 feet would result in unacceptable health risks to those residences because they would be there continually and the health risk is calculated on exposure, location, and things like that. So we would -- we don't think that's a good idea. And it's not my decision. That's up to others to make that decision about placement. But what I have seen is when things like that have occurred elsewhere you put a residential facility or housing development down-wind of some industrial site, you ends up having complaints from people because they're constantly exposed and insulated by other things that might not otherwise be bothersome. That's not to say solar isn't doing a good job. But there may be occasional odor or risks from the cells. In this case, what I would say is it isn't a very good idea to put people there. You're waiting for problems to develop if that happen, and the people who are living there, become sensitized to solar, they're giong to complain. We have to take action because state law and public nuisance law does not recognize who came first. CAVANAUGH: So it's very complicated blend that you're dealing with here in not only what toxins are being emitted but in what levels and how close they are to people, and which way the wind is blowing and things of that nature. Joy, could you tell us what type was toxic pollutants are businesses in San Diego emit something what other things you're most concerned with in the environmental health coalition? WILLIAMS: It just -- it's a broad statement of what are all the companies we've looked at, and what seems to rise to the top. It would be heavy metals, such as chromium is one that's highly toxic, even in small amounts. And diesel particulate, which are emitted by industrial boilers and processes as well as by diesel trucks and mobile sources. CAVANAUGH: It sounds, Bob, a lot of what you're talking about is people actually reporting a problem with a facility or with some sort of pollution problem. Isn't it true that an awful lot of air pollution people don't even detect so they wouldn't know by simple he smelling an odor or having some sort of residue on their home? KARD: Well, it's true that some of these toxic contaminants are not something you would sense visually or through your nose. You wouldn't smell them, and they're this anyway. The chromium that joy just mentioned is a good example. You don't sense it in any way, shape or form. But it is a highly potent carcinogen. With facilities, they are tested. We have regulations and permits people have to follow. We do both inspections of facilities where we check records and verify they're accurate. And we also physically inspect facilities. And then beyond that, we do testing of stack emissions on facilities to make sure that they're within the limits which are designed to protect public health within existing law. CAVANAUGH: One of the problems cited in this process, in this article about the list of toxic places and watch lists and so forth, is the process that businesses monitor their own pollution. Does the environmental health coalition have a problem with that, joy? WILLIAMS: Well, sure, I mean I think that actual monitoring and measuring of pollutants would be better than engineering estimates of what's coming out. But that just is cost prohibitive. So I don't think it's something we've advocated for strongly. CAVANAUGH: How do we know that the reporting is accurate, Bob? We'll check records if someone is using paint, for example, coatings that have solvents that evaporate. We check thirds requirement their purchase records, we make sure that things jive. In addition, as I mentioned, we look at the devices they're controlling their emissions with to make sure they're operation properly. And we literally go out and poke a probe in the stack and test for those compounds. Some facilities have what we call continuous emission monitors. Those are highly calibrated, well-maintained instruments that we regulate, that sample the stack emissions on an ongoing basis and record the numbers. We ask people to self report, but there's verification involved. So it is a trust by verify snare Joe. And California and San Diego are on the leading edge of that. We do a very good job of making sure people stay within the parameters set for them. Industries never zero emit pollutants. CAVANAUGH: There must be some polluted areas of the county that you really keep a watch on. I know there were a number of businesses around the bay it seemed that had some -- there are high risk warnings on the list that I saw. Which are the ones that really disturb you, Bob? KARD: I don't have anyone who disturbs me. This is it really an ongoing effort on our part. We conduct thousands of inspections per year, and we are out there doing the inspections and testing and monitoring that. If someplace gets onto our radar as being a bad actor, that's what would concern we. And we take immediate action. Recently, the good example is the Neptune crematorium out in El Cajon. That was causing nuisance odors, black smoke, glowing embers coming out of the stack. And we first started getting complaints in November of 2010, and by April 28th 28th, we had gone to our hearing board and revoked their permit to operate, and received an order of abatement to shut them down. I don't like shutting down businesses. But with someone like this, who we tried to work with, wasn't able to correct the problem or was unwilling to do it, we will take action. If there was someone on my list, I would tell you. But I don't have anybody right now. Because I really do think the community here is doing a pretty good job. And I won't disagree with joy that there are concerns for toxin air contaminants out there. The cleaner air we all breathe, the better we are. But within the limits we're set up for, state law and federal law, and our local rules, I think we're doing a good job. I don't have anybody in particular on my raider. CAVANAUGH: As far as you're concerned, all businesses in San Diego are in compliance with all air pollution laws? KARD: All I can say is, and that would never be a guarantee I could give you, because when we inspect, and I'm not saying there aren't violators at the moment, but no one sticks up on my radar as a big problem. There's no wart on the scene, if you will. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask the same question to joy. Is there -- are there any areas of the city, any particular polluters that are -- keep popping up on the environmental coalition's list that you want something done about? WILLIAMS: When you look at this map and where the dots are, there are some clusters. And I think that's the issue that we're concerned about, is those areas like west El Cajon, Barrio Logan, in the San Marcos area where there's definitely a concentration of area emitting facilities. They do tend to be in older, poorer neighborhoods. So that's the environmental justice picture where you've got an older poorer neighborhood that has a concentration of air pollutants. So the health issue there is what is the combined impact of these facilities. And one of them may be in compliance, yet jointly, there may be an impact on health of people in that community. CAVANAUGH: A sort of cumulative effect is what you're talking about. WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. CAVANAUGH: What health issues could people have with a cumulative air pollution effect of that nature? WILLIAMS: Well, the more immediate impacts might be on eyes and skin. For years we've heard people talk about more watery eyes, skin irritations, and things like that. CAVANAUGH: Asthma? WILLIAMS: Also more asthma in children. So when there's more respiratory irritants in the air, that can be a trigger for asthma. Down the line, if you stay in a neighborhood and breathe carcinogens for decades, you're increasing your cancer risks by some substantial amount. Those are the kinds of health impacts in these neighborhoods that would be less so in cleaner areas. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Bob? KARD: I don't disagree with Joy. Clearly we have environmental justice areas, we call them, where the less well-off folks are more exposed to industrial pollutants, and industries and truck traffic and everything else that is there. The control district has no land use authority to say you can or cannot be here. That's a local, city decision. We do our best to make sure that folks stay within the parameters of law, emit as few pollutants as possible based on our authority, then we do enforce that. Concentrating industries amongst neighborhoods is a bad idea. I already said the fat city project being proposed for down-wind turbines is not a good idea. We certainly will let people know if we have a concern with something like that. CAVANAUGH: Who does make that decision? KARD: In this case, it's probably the City of San Diego or the center city development corporation. I just don't have the information on that because we only look at what we're emitting, how they're going to control it, and what the health risks are as a result of that. So I don't disagree with Joy that it's a problem. And we've seen it throughout California. I've been in four air districts in my time. And I think incompatible uses always result in problems, whether it's nuisance or health impacts. It's inevitable. CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. I think you've given us a really good overview of what your office is doing and what we still need to be concerned about here in San Diego. You can see the EPA list of businesses in San Diego, the one that we've been talking about, on our website at And the county air pollution complaint line is 858-586-2650. You can also find that on our website. Thank you both very much. WILLIAMS: KARD: Thank you very much. WILLIAMS: Yeah, thank you very much.

To begin exploring how air pollution may affect your community, use this interactive map of more than 17,000 facilities that have emitted hazardous chemicals into the air. Color-coded dots and scores of one to five smoke stacks are based on an EPA method of assessing potential health risk in airborne toxins from a given facility.


San Diego County Air Pollution Control District complaint line 858-586-2650

We interview Bob Kard about San Diego's commitment to clean air.

Earlier this month, NPR reported on an Environmental Protection Agency "watch list" for businesses who are chronic violators of the Clean Air Act.

The list was kept secret from the public - until recently. Why are no San Diego County businesses on the watch list? We'll discuss the issue today with Bob Kard and Joy Williams.