Track 13: Ted Schade, GBUAPCD

Situated within a deep basin between the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada and the western slope of the Inyo Mountains, the Owens Valley is prone to extreme and sustained wind events that travel primarily along a north and south axis. Shortly after Owens Lake became dry in 1926, severe alkali dust storms regularly debilitated the region when fine particulate matter covering the lakebed’s surface became airborne and transient. Formed five to ten thousand of years ago, many similar U.S. western dry lakes have stabilized over time; wind and other natural processes blew fine particulate off these ancient lakebeds eons ago leaving the heavier, more stable matter intact.

Desiccated less than 100 years old, the Owens lakebed has not had the luxury of geological time to stabilize as such. Indeed, until LADWP’s recent dust control mitigation effort was in place, a fine, talcum-like dust covered much of the dry playa. The dust, known to contain a caustic mix of arsenic, cadmium, nickel, sulfates, salts, and other contaminants has been shown to cause adverse heath effects if inhaled on a regular basis. [1] Studies show that it is not uncommon for those directly exposed to the metallic tasting matter to suffer eye irritations, nosebleeds, allergic reactions, and other compromised respiratory-related conditions. Sensitive populations including children and the elderly or those with asthma, bronchitis, heart and lung disease are especially at risk. Past dust storms have caused severe driving hazards throughout the valley resulting in car wrecks and sometimes fatalities. In addition, these extreme dust events impact area wildlife as well as the overall ecology of the region.

Residents throughout Owens Valley, especially those in communities near the lakebed including Lone Pine, Keeler, Cartago, and Olancha are particularly affected by these dust events. Up until the dust control mitigation efforts began in 2001, residents from these communities dealt with the dust storms on an ongoing, regular basis.  The dust events were not only localized—scientific studies showed that Owens Lake dust could be transported vast distances—as far south as San Bernardino and over the Eastern Sierra into the San Joaquin Valley to the west.[2]  Dust storms originating from Owens Lake regularly suspended past military operations at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, located ninety miles to the south, resulting in millions of dollars in losses. A single cancelled flight test could cost the Navy up to $50,000 per test.[3] Indeed, the Navy drove the impetus to address and resolve the Owens Lake air pollution that was affecting the entire region.

National air pollution standards were set by 1970 under the Federal Clean Air Act specifying which air pollutants are regulated and at what levels the public is allowed to breath them. Consequent revisions set the allowable air pollution standard for PM-10 (particulate matter ten microns in diameter or less) which has the ability, due to its microscopic size (about one-seventh the one-seventh the diameter of a human hair) to lodge into the lower regions of the respiratory tract and leading to adverse health affects such as cancer, depressed immunity function and various lung disorders including asthma.[4]

Air monitoring of Owens Lake and surrounding areas began in the 1980s with the formation of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD), a California state regional government agency serving the unified counties of Alpine, Mono, and Inyo Counties. GBUAPCD recorded PM-10 levels 100 times over allowable federal standard and it was quickly determined that the source, Owens Lake, was the largest single source of PM-10 in the nation.[5] Before current dust control mitigation measures were in place, GBUAPCD estimated that the lakebed was producing about 80,000 tons of dust annually and would frequently record twenty to thirty exceedances for the federal standard for PM-10 air pollution allowed per year—all at abnormally high levels.[6]

With the passing of California Health and Safety Code 42316, a series of negotiations with the GBUAPCD and the City of Los Angeles took place in late 1990s, resulting in the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in July 1998. The MOA required that LADWP implement dust control mitigation measures meeting state and federal air quality standards by the mid-2000s—thus initiating the largest dust control project of its kind ever undertaken in North America.

It is estimated that dust pollution originating from Owens Lake impacts about 40,000 permanent residents throughout the area. Regional health officials assume that chronic dust exposure is causing health affects for some of the population. Indeed, in the 2012 Community Health Needs Assessment Report by the Southern Inyo Healthcare District in Lone Pine stated that 91.5% of cancer deaths in Inyo County resulted from lung cancer—compared to the national average of 52.6%.[7] Understandably, the report calls for further aggressive air quality monitoring to continue within the region.

Large dust events continue to occur throughout the Owens Valley—albeit less frequent and severe today as in the past. For example, on May 25th, 2012 a stage two health advisory was advised for the residents of Lone Pine with a stage one for those living in Keeler. That afternoon air pollution monitoring devices measured PM10 in the town of Lone Pine at 776 ug/m3. At the Lone Pine tribal area just south of town, measurements nearly doubled to 1362 ug/m3.[8]  This suggests that all-to-familiar dust storms will continue to burden the region, indicating the need to maintain and extend LADWP’s dust control mitigation program at Owens Lake well into the future.

Check out the GBUAPCD dust cam at:

[1] Sarah Kittle, “Survey of Reported Health Effects of Owens Lake Particulate Matter,” GBUACD website, January 14, 2000.
[2] Kevin Roderick, “In Keeler, It’s Breathe If You Dare,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1989.
[3] Jeffrery Anderson, “The Eternal Dustbowl,” LA Weekly, March 23, 2006.
[4] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website: Last accessed 9/22/12.
[5] Interview with Ted Schade, GBUAPCD Air Pollution Control Officer on 12/20/11.
[6] Ibid.
[7] MJ Phillips & Associates, Southern Inyo Healthcare District, Lone Pine, CA, “2012 Community Health Needs Assessment Report,” Southern Inyo Healthcare District, Lone Pine, CA, May 2012, p. 6.
[8] GBUAPCD website Health Advisory warning cited May 25, 2012 at Stage 2 air pollution health advisories are issued when hourly particulate pollution levels exceed 800 µg/m 3. During a stage 2 health advisory it is recommended that everyone refrain from strenuous outdoor activities in the impacted area and stay indoors.

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