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Air quality officials say DWP responsible for Owens Lake dust storms

 Dust fills the air along old highway 136 near Lone Pine during a dust storm over Owens Lake in March. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

The California Air Resource Board ruled Monday that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is solely responsible for controlling the choking dust storms that arise from the dry Owens Lake bed.

The board said the DWP must take additional air pollution control measures on 2.9 square miles of the lake bed, which was drained to provide water to Los Angeles. The powder-fine dust arising from the bed often exceeds federal health standards.

The DWP argues that it has already reduced dust pollution by 90%, at a cost to ratepayers of $1.2 billion. The additional measures will cost an estimated $400 million, the utility said.

The board’s decision aligns with the findings of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution District, which had called for the added measures. “It’s a complete victory,” said Ted Schade, chief enforcement officer for the district.

Still pending, however, is a federal court lawsuit the DWP filed earlier this year to limit its obligation to control dust from the vast alkaline playa, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Schade said the board’s decision will become “an important part of our defense in the federal lawsuit. I believe a court will look kindly on the district’s position in this matter. After all, it’s a public health issue.”

James N. Goldstene, the board’s executive director, ruled that the DWP must abide by conditions of 1998 and 2007 settlement agreements with Great Basin to stop the massive dust storms that arose after it opened its aqueduct 99 years ago.

In a statement, DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said the board’s decision to “simply accept Great Basin’s position was not unexpected.”

The lawsuit accuses Great Basin and Schade of giving “other responsible parties” a “free ride” when it comes to Owens Lake’s dust problems, while forcing the utility to waste billions of gallons of water to control dust with shallow flooding.

In addition to Great Basin, the lawsuit names as defendants the California Lands Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit seeks to transfer a portion of the costs of controlling dust from city rate payers to the state lands commission and BLM, which own 10 square miles of the lake bed.

Goldstene pointed out that the city aqueduct diverted nearly all the water flowing into the 110-square-mile eastern Sierra lake, reducing it to a small permanent brine pool surrounded by dry alkali soils. "During high winds, significant quantities of sand particles are blown across the lake bed surface resulting in dust plumes of particulate matter 10 microns or less in diameter,” Goldstene said.

Particulate air emissions lodge deep in the lungs, where they can cause respiratory injuries, and pose additional risks to children and the elderly.

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-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Dust fills the air along old Highway 136 near Lone Pine during a dust storm over the Owens Lake bed in March. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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