It's Getting Hot in Here: What Alberta can learn from California's South Coast Air Quality Management District Awards

Author: Sharon M. Szmolyan


Publish Date: Tuesday, October 31, 2017


LOS ANGELES – If you were living somewhere on planet Earth in 1982, what was the state of your world?

In Canada in April 1982, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau signed the Proclamation of the Constitution Act, which enshrined the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and allowed Canadians to amend their own Constitution without requiring approval from Britain. In Alberta, where I was living, Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative party won a landslide victory in the provincial election, capturing 75 of 79 seats.

The movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, generated $792.9 million at the box office. Dynasty, a primetime soap on ABC television rendered the feud of two of America’s wealthiest families over their fortunes and their children.

As a music junkie, I listened to Billy Idol rock my world. The Clash delivered ‘combat rock,’ and the Dead Kennedys performed “Plastic Surgery Disasters.”

All was right in the world. Or was it?

Having graduated from Henry Wise Wood high school in Calgary in 1982, the world was my oyster. I knew nothing then of the world I would come to know and experience first-hand.

Image result for South Coast AQMDFlash forward to 2017. I am a guest at California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District’s (SCAQMD) 29th Annual Clean Air Awards. The SCAQMD is the air pollution control agency for all of Orange County and urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

 At the awards ceremony, I had the privilege to meet the next generation, who – despite their nation’s anti-environmental President and cadre of “stone cold crazy” Bannonites pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to officially repudiate climate science – are passionate and intellectually aligned with broad environmental issues. They are forging their future with commitments to science, solutions and love for the environment.

Innovative high school program honoured with award

Much has changed since I graduated from high school.

At SCAQMD’s Clean Air Awards, Carson High School in Carson, California and its Environmental Science, Engineering, and Technology (ESET) program won an Award for Clean Air Education Outreach. It was presented to an outstanding individual or group effort designed to inform the public about air quality issues, promote efforts to improve air quality, and for the development and hosting of the high school’s alternative energy car show.

Held annually during Earth Week as an outreach and educational effort, the car show attracts approximately 1,500 students and faculty. Students are offered an up-close look at a range of near-zero and zero-emission vehicles, and are provided with information on ‘green’ auto technology careers awaiting successful graduates.

But the event isn’t just a car show. The ESET program’s educational component includes students learning and sharing technologies and engineering knowledge. They explore, from a hands-on perspective, the environmental impacts of clean vehicles – including battery-electric, plug-in electric, hybrid-electric, hydrogen fuel cell and natural gas. They also gain experience with real-life roles in project management, planning and event execution.

If the next generation of consumers is presented with new and exciting vehicle technologies, it can lead them, their family members and their networks to reconsider the car, to learn about the positive possibilities of low- and zero-emission cars.

Beyond the annual alternative energy car show, Carson High School’s ESET program is designed to provide career direction, encourage continuing education and reduce the dropout rate. The program achieves this by collaborating with industry, with the students being responsible for seeking sponsorship of the event and their program. This is based upon the premise that too few students realize the tremendous opportunities awaiting them in today’s highly competitive workplace.

Now in its fifth year, the ESET program combines four years of high school and two or more years of college. Industry partnerships provide both internships and job shadowing for approximately 520 students – half of them with an environmental science focus and half with a focus in engineering.


Image result for South Coast AQMDAwakening to a different world

The environmental consciousness and innovation evident at Carson High School was not even close to the experience of my generation in high school. Graduating in 1982, we came of age in a time of financial largesse. We were imbued with an optimistic vision of a future that made my walk into the world largely one along a yellow brick road.

Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed had dreams of enacting a ‘Camelot,’ and he did of a sort. But groups like The Clash, Blondie, U2 and the Dead Kennedys were singing about and to a world without Lougheed’s noblesse oblige, a world not functioning as elegantly and which had lesser mortals at the helm.

Lougheed was a Harvard MBA. He knew of the world beyond the province’s borders, so it seems odd that Alberta became so insular. But Lougheed knew well how to absorb his political opponents. He knew how a huge provincial legislative majority would marginalize opposition voices – of which I was, a Liberal in the spirit of federal leader Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

But Lougheed also knew how to inspire us to be our best. In this time of the world, that lesson is truly about doing so much more than what we are comfortable with.

Progress made, but air pollutants remain a problem

The objective of California Governor Jerry Brown is that the state serves as a living laboratory for coordinated solutions to climate change and reducing our environmental footprint, a showcase for innovations and models for others to follow.

In the long run, the effort is about dealing with the potentials of catastrophic global warming. In the meantime, it is about a sustainable economy, as it has been since the end of the Ronald Reagan presidency.

California legislation focusing specifically on climate change dates back to a 1988 law mandating an inventory of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, there has been a host of legislative initiatives designed to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy, and thereby limit carbon emissions.

California’s regulatory agency has accumulated a high level of expertise and public trust, being in alignment with the goals of capturing the economic benefits from the pioneering of new energy technologies. As a result, California has struck a ‘bonanza.’ Residents have saved more than $65 billion in energy costs since the 1970s. In 2015, average monthly residential electricity bills in the state were about 17 per cent below the national average, according to a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But these benefits do have limitations. More than half of America’s dirtiest cities are in California, and their rates of illness are rising. 

Image result for South Coast AQMDHeavy duty trucks are the fastest-growing segment of the American transportation sector in terms of fossil fuel consumption and account for about 20 per cent of greenhouse gases, despite making up only five per cent of vehicles on the road, according to a New York Times story. Heavy duty trucks are the largest source of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in southern California, which has the worst ground-level ozone problem in the nation. Heavy duty diesel trucks will be the largest source of NOx in the South Coast Air Basin in 2023, according to the SCAQMD (see graph at right). Cities have vulnerable populations across California impacted by toxic smog from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, entry points for more than half of the goods shipped into the U.S. and the largest sources of California’s air pollution.

The industrial corridor from the ports to the city of Riverside, a distribution hub that sprouted up next to the freeways where trucks and trains transporting goods belch dark clouds of diesel dust, is called the “diesel death zone.”

University of Southern California researchers discovered, after monitoring for more than a decade, that children living within a quarter mile (0.4 kilometre) of a freeway had an 89 per cent higher risk of asthma than children living more than a mile (1.6 kilometres) away.

The comparisons of fossil fuel combustion to the nine-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, with its poisonous blood and deadly acid spit, does not seem overblown. Fossil fuel combustion is proven to be inflicting multitude serious health and developmental harms in children, our most vulnerable population. Pollutants are capable of delivering multiple and cumulative adverse effects, both directly and indirectly. The developing fetus and young children, especially if they are poor, are most vulnerable to these impacts.

The Obama administration promised to adopt federal regulations that would require a new generation of clean-burning diesel trucks, according to a story in the Los Angeles Daily News. The strict emissions limits were expected to begin in seven years, and experts said they would slash smog-forming emissions from big rig trucks, Southern California’s biggest source of smog.

However, the Trump administration has announced its intention to roll back the regulations.


Protecting our most vulnerable population

At the SCAQMD’s 29th Annual Clean Air Awards, Dr. Stanley Galant received the Robert M. Zweig, M.D., Memorial Award. Galant is medical director of the Breathmobile, a mobile asthma treatment clinic for the Children’s Hospital Orange County. He is also a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine. In accepting the award, Galant noted: “People are often not aware of what is happening to them in daily life.”

Yet it is very clear when your newborn is gasping for air, when her lips and the skin under her fingernails are blue – from lack of oxygen – that something is deadly wrong.

The World Health Organization has published volumes of research which have established that children from infancy through age 6 are more biologically and psychologically vulnerable to the many adverse effects of toxic air pollutants.  

Contributing factors include children’s rapid growth and their dynamic developmental programming being vulnerable to dysregulation, their immature detoxification, immune and thermoregulatory systems, as well as their reliance on adult caretakers. Most of the 86 billion neurons of the brain are formed during the prenatal period, which makes the developing fetus in a pregnant woman even more vulnerable.

Studies have also shown that a seven-month-long fetal period, characterized by the exponential growth of the fetus and development of fully differentiated organs and tissues, along with the period of early childhood (from birth through age 6) represent windows of susceptibility. During these periods, children are susceptible to genetic damage and epigenetic dysregulation from exposure to foreign chemical compounds, including drugs, pesticides, carcinogens and neurotoxins, with potentially long-term transgenerational consequences.

Worldwide, according to studies and World Health Organization statistics, one-third of the existing global burden of disease is caused by environmental factors. More than 40 per cent of that burden is born by children younger than 5 years of age. Yet they represent only 10 per cent of the world’s population. Moreover, research shows more than 88 per cent of the existing global burden of disease due to climate change also falls on children, mainly on populations of low socioeconomic status worldwide.

Going beyond the powerful scientific and economic arguments for urgent action to reduce the burning of fossil fuels is the moral imperative to protect our most vulnerable population.

It may no longer be so hard to make the case for a holistic, child-centered energy and climate policy that addresses the full array of physical and psychosocial stressors from fossil fuel pollution. Kids affected will never get well. California today has a generation permanently damaged by constant exposure to fossil fuel pollution. The effects are not transient. These are children that cannot participate in sports. When they get older they are more likely to have heart disease – their bodies cannot generate enough oxygen. Overall they get sick faster and they die younger.

This is a preview of what will happen everywhere as our planet gets hotter, as carbon levels keep climbing and air quality progressively worsens.


Reclaiming our place of leadership

Image result for South Coast AQMDI would like to express my thanks for the commitment that California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District makes every minute of the day to ensure this dystopia never arrives. They employ a variety of innovative and practical strategies. They make public and enforce the compliance of rules for 30,000 businesses operating under SCAQMD permits – from large oil refineries and power plants to refueling stations and dry cleaning plants – across 10,700 square miles (about 27,700 square kilometres) to protect the wellbeing of more than 16 million residents.

Click here for a full list of the SCAQMD Clean Air Awards 2017 winners.

California made the choice to lead. Growing up as I did in the ‘Era of Camelot,’ the best way to deal with all the environmental and economic challenges we as Albertans face is to reclaim Peter Lougheed’s vision of Alberta as a place of leadership, a place where people aren’t just looking to make a quick fortune and pay low taxes, but where people aspire to lead, to create, to excel.

Sharon M. Szmolyan, MBA is a regulator contributor to EnviroLine. She is a catalyst, founder and managing partner of the Alberta Media Investment Fund. Her focus is risk management in the entertainment and energy industries, and she divides her time between Los Angeles and Calgary.



  • You should really look at the pollution in your soil and all the nasty chemicals companies like Monsanto put in our soil. This is in all if our food, one of the worst being Round up. These chemicals affect everyone, we all need to eat and the food we eat is so dangerous.

    Patricia Szmolyan - 2017-11-02T17:37:05

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