State power shut­downs raise air pol­lu­tion wor­ries

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - News - By JOHN FLESHER AP En­vi­ron­men­tal Writer

Power shut­downs in­tended to pre­vent more dev­as­tat­ing Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires are rais­ing new con­cerns about an­other long­stand­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal threat: air pol­lu­tion.

As util­i­ties halted service to more than two mil­lion peo­ple this week, lines formed at hard­ware stores sell­ing por­ta­ble gen­er­a­tors, while many hos­pi­tals and busi­nesses fired up their own. The prospect of emis­sions belch­ing from un­told num­bers of the ma­chines, some pow­ered by diesel and gaso­line as well as propane and nat­u­ral gas, was trou­bling in a state al­ready bur­dened with some of the na­tion’s worst air qual­ity.

“It is a ma­jor con­cern,” said Dr. Laki Tisop­u­los, ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Ven­tura County Air Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Dis­trict. “Imag­ine if you are in a large metropoli­tan area like Los An­ge­les or the (San Fran­cisco) Bay Area and you have hun­dreds or thou­sands of these en­gines kick­ing in. All of a sud­den you have many lo­cal­ized sources of pol­lu­tion that are spew­ing car­cino­gens right where we breathe. It can be next door to a school, a hos­pi­tal.”

Ques­tions also arose over how the black­outs might af­fect traf­fic pat­terns, po­ten­tially caus­ing even more tie-ups and dis­charges than usual from ve­hi­cles. They are a lead­ing fac­tor in Cal­i­for­nia air pol­lu­tion, along with a warm, sunny cli­mate that helps pro­duce ozone and topo­graph­i­cal fea­tures such as the Cen­tral Val­ley where pol­luted air of­ten stag­nates.

“It’s on peo­ple’s minds in the air qual­ity world,” said Kris­tine Roselius, spokes­woman for the Bay Area Air Qual­ity Man­age­ment Dis­trict, which tracks air pol­lu­tion and sets reg­u­la­tions in a nine-county re­gion that in­cludes San Fran­cisco.

“The wild­fires that are driven by cli­mate change and all the con­se­quences of that are cer­tainly a new nor­mal and it’s con­stantly emerg­ing,” Roselius said.

The dis­trict had not de­tected any uptick in con­tam­i­na­tion lev­els at its more than 30 air qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing gauges, although the high winds that prompted the power shut­downs could be dis­pers­ing them, she said Fri­day.

Staffers will be watch­ing for spikes in pol­lu­tants in­clud­ing ni­tro­gen ox­ides and small, sooty par­ti­cles, which gen­er­a­tors tend to pro­duce, she said. But it could be dif­fi­cult to pin­point the cause, since air qual­ity is in­flu­enced by many fac­tors, she added.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and ex­perts said pol­lu­tion from emer­gency power dur­ing in­ten­tional black­outs is one more wrin­kle for pol­i­cy­mak­ers and plan­ners deal­ing with a con­stant threat of cat­a­strophic in­fer­nos and more ex­treme weather.

Sig­nif­i­cant rises in diesel ex­haust could worsen asthma symp­toms and pose risks for peo­ple with heart and lung dis­eases, said Dr. John Balmes, a spokesman for the Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion and a Bay Area res­i­dent among those tem­po­rar­ily with­out elec­tric­ity.

“There would have to be a lot used at the same time to have much of an im­pact out­side the im­me­di­ate area of the gen­er­a­tor,” he said.

Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co., the state’s largest elec­tric­ity provider, an­nounced its shut­downs as fore­casts called for gusts that could knock trees and limbs into power lines and spark flames.

The Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board, the state’s clean-air agency, de­scribed the power in­ter­rup­tions as nec­es­sary to pro­tect peo­ple and prop­erty but ac­knowl­edged they would lead to wide­spread reliance on standby gen­er­a­tors.

“The use of these en­gines will gen­er­ate ad­di­tional emis­sions,” board spokes­woman Me­lanie Turner said. “We will be as­sess­ing the im­pact as these pub­lic safety power shut­offs evolve.”

Peo­ple us­ing gen­er­a­tors should check with their lo­cal air dis­tricts about rules and per­mit re­quire­ments, Turner said. But the board con­sid­ers op­er­a­tion of sta­tion­ary and por­ta­ble diesel en­gines dur­ing a shut­down to be an emer­gency that meets state reg­u­la­tions.

The Bay Area dis­trict al­ready was of­fer­ing in­cen­tives to en­cour­age big­ger cus­tomers such as waste­water treat­ment plants, mu­nic­i­pal build­ings and schools to switch from diesel gen­er­a­tors to those pow­ered with cleaner fu­els such as nat­u­ral gas or so­lar en­ergy, Roselius said. Those ef­forts could be broad­ened to in­clude small busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als, she said.

The U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency also reg­u­lates air con­tam­i­na­tion from the kinds of en­gines used in most emer­gency gen­er­a­tors.

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son said it had cut power to more than 20,000 cus­tomers in five coun­ties, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les, and was con­sid­er­ing the same ac­tion for about 110,000 more.

In Ven­tura County, air qual­ity spe­cial­ist Phil Moyal said there was no sign of con­tam­i­na­tion from gen­er­a­tors. But the area was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a blast of Santa Ana winds that orig­i­nate in­land and blow pol­lu­tants off­shore. Once winds sub­side, gen­er­a­tor emis­sions could con­trib­ute to a rise in ozone if power black­outs con­tinue, he said.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Joe Wil­son pulls his gen­er­a­tor out Tues­day in the garage of his home, which is in an area that is ex­pected to lose power in the East Foothills area of San Jose. Power shut­downs in­tended to pre­vent more dev­as­tat­ing Cal­i­for­nia wild­fires are rais­ing con­cerns about an­other en­vi­ron­men­tal threat: air pol­lu­tion.

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