In Keeler, It's Breathe If You Dare

Los Angeles Times
April 2, 1989

KEELER, Calif.

Jack Riley tries to get home quickly when he sees a dust plume rising off Owens Lake, the dry salt pan created by Los Angeles' thirst for Sierra Nevada water. The plume means swirling gray clouds of alkaline dust will soon envelop this little town, making driving dangerous and breathing unpleasant. "It's like flour," says Riley. "I just stay indoors, lock the windows, and hook up to the oxygen."

Around here, "Keeler fogs" are more than a reminder that Los Angeles drained the ancient saline Owens Lake and exposed the salt bed to winter winds. Dust blowing off the dry lake has become a major nuisance in California's deserts, a legacy of Los Angeles' growth into a megalopolis. Dust-bearing storms whirling out of Owens Valley recently have been found to pose a health hazard to 40,000 people downwind who must breathe the super-fine particles. It also interferes with Navy weapons testing at China Lake, impairs visibility in the Antelope Valley and San Bernardino and falls as an abrasive powder 250 miles to the south, in Orange and Riverside counties.

In Keeler, a former mining town on the east shore of the Owens Lake bed, dust storms have been a winter feature almost since Los Angeles water engineers dried up the lake in 1926. But it was only recently that the massive range of the dust storms was measured and the health risk understood. "It wasn't until June 2, 1987, that I knew there was any danger," said Don Odell, a Lone Pine attorney and member of the Inyo County Grand Jury.

That was the day the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that a risk to health was carried in the harsh mix of fine-grained salt, clay and sulfates that are swept off the lake bed when winds whip through the Owens Valley, a gash of high desert between the Sierra Nevada and the White and Inyo mountains. The dust can be caustic and cause bloody noses, watery eyes and irritated lungs, in part because of mining chemicals dumped on the lake bed, according to local doctors and environmental studies. "When you get a big whiff of that stuff you can really taste it," said Riley, who sleeps with his oxygen bottle.

The worst risk comes from the extremely small size of the dust particles. Smaller than 10 microns in diameter, the particles penetrate farther into the lungs than ordinary dust and become embedded, the EPA says. (A human hair is 100 to 200 microns thick.) A major change in EPA clean air standards was made after fine dust was linked with higher rates of cancer, lung disorders and depressed immunity. The PM-10 standard, so named because it governs the 10-micron or smaller particles, was set after tests found that inhaling tiny dust particles takes an extra toll on children, the elderly, people with lung diseases and those who breathe mainly through the mouth.

It's the extreme levels of dust that set Owens Valley apart from other areas with a PM-10 problem."It's in a class by itself," said Duane Ono, the EPA specialist on Owens Lake dust. "There's nowhere in the country that measures higher concentrations, except during some forest fires."

Fewer than 4,000 people live in the immediate path of most Owens Lake dust flurries. Thousands more drive through the area on U.S. 395, entertained by commanding views of the mountains and desert air that on dust-free days is some of the purest in the state. But in severe wind and dust storms, which can occur more than a dozen times a year, the Owens Lake dust cloud spreads over a wide area of the Mojave Desert. "Because of the extent of the plumes, the health of an estimated 40,000 people may be affected by this one source," the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District concluded in a December report.

When winds blow from the north, the direction that raises the most dust, the cloud has been measured 25 miles south of Owens Lake at concentrations the EPA says can cause significant harm, the pollution control district report said. Dust clouds thick enough to exceed federal air pollution limits often reach Ridgecrest and Inyokern, 60 miles away in Kern County, the pollution district report said, and perhaps reach as far south as San Bernardino and Redlands. A 1985 fallout over Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties that damaged car finishes was not acid rain, but more likely was Owens Lake dust. "It is conceivable that under certain conditions, Owens Lake dust may be captured . . . within the jet stream and travel for hundreds or thousands of miles downwind," the district report said.

Bad dust storms also shut down testing at the Navy's China Lake Naval Weapons Center for five to 10 days a year, delays that cost the Navy $5 million. A Navy study of the dust in 1986 found that it frequently reaches the crest of the Sierra Nevada range south of Mt. Whitney; a dust plume was even seen at 13,500 feet, slipping west over the Sierra into the San Joaquin Valley.

The 1986 Navy report was among the first to link Owens Lake dust to illness. The report said doctors in Ridgecrest see more patients suffering from emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis when Owens Lake dust is around. Some are hospitalized with lung spasms, and other people complain of coughing, sneezing and irritation of the eyes, the Navy report said. When the dust closes in, there is also apprehension. "People become annoyed and anxious," the Navy report said.

Keeler residents such as Jack Riley live smack on the east shore of the former lake, nakedly exposed to winds hurling dust off the lake bed. Local air quality officials say the federal safety standard for dust is violated 24 days a year on average at Keeler, the worst of any Owens Valley town. At Lone Pine, 14 miles to the northwest, the standard is exceeded about eight days a year.

Keeler was a thriving lakeside community in the late 19th Century, a key stop on the wagon route once used to move silver ore from the Cerro Gordo mine to Los Angeles. A narrow-gauge mining railroad later came through town, but the tracks are gone and the old depot now is home to some of the fewer than 90 people who live in Keeler.

The only business in town is a store whose proprietor will open up if you knock on her front door, and the houses and fences show the wear of years under siege by desert sun and winds.

No study has looked closely at the danger to people in Keeler, although some officials say the risk seems clear. "This is truly a health hazard, I'm very comfortable with the evidence on that," said Andrea Lawrence, a Mono County supervisor and chairwoman of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. "There's no question it needs to be taken care of, and quickly. It's gone on far too long."

Last Feb. 3, the air sampling station at Keeler measured a record high level of dust during a windstorm that residents recall as especially fierce. The EPA safety limit is 150 micrograms of dust per cubic meter of air, and anything above 600 micrograms is believed able to cause "significant harm to health." That Friday in Keeler, the dust level was measured at 1,860 micrograms, more than 10 times the EPA standard and triple the level believed to cause significant harm. "What often happens at Keeler is the sampler (machine) chokes and dies," said Ellen Hardebeck, the pollution control district officer for Inyo, Mono and Alpine counties.

"It was god-awful," recalled Roberta Ushman, who retired in Keeler from Torrance with her husband, Mike. "You couldn't see across the street. We had new windows put in, hoping that would slow it down, but it just comes in." Jeanne Lopez, the former Inyo county clerk, said the dust has eroded the paint from her 1985 Dodge and left her with a prolonged sore throat. "When you're right in it, it's frightening. It blots out the sun, it covers everything," Lopez said. "You just feel if it's coming in your house, if it's in your bed, it must be getting in your lungs, too."

Mike Ushman, a painting contractor, blames the dust for the town's dwindling population. Four Keeler residents have died recently of lung cancer or other pulmonary troubles, he said. His two tenants decided to move away after the Feb. 3 storm, and Riley isn't the only man on oxygen, Ushman said. "There's too many people dying in this town of lung disorders," Ushman said.

Ushman and others contend that county officials are ignoring the danger, and say residents should at least be warned to stay indoors if a dust storm is expected. "They should have sirens here," Ushman said. "When that stuff starts lifting, they should warn us. It's slow death."

William Cox, who collects and analyzes air samples in Keeler for the pollution control district, is sympathetic. His ears burn so badly when the dust blows that he wears plugs. On a recent trip to read the monitoring equipment, Cox said, "The visibility was about the front of my truck. My lungs felt like I had been out jogging. I had to just stop."

But air quality officials are the last to know when there is a bad dust storm, said pollution control officer Hardebeck. The dust level must be measured for 24 hours using filters that need to be driven 60 miles to Bishop to be analyzed. "It's all over by the time we find out about it," said Hardebeck, who also suffers from sensitivity to the dust when it blows north into Bishop, where her office is.

More often than not, people in Keeler and the other small towns that ring Owens Lake learn of a dust storm when they see the dust cloud rise off the dry bed, which covers the lowest-lying 100 square miles in the valley. It takes a wind of 20 m.p.h. to lift the dust. Many longtime residents just accept the storms as part of life.

"Once you've been here a while you kind of get used to it," said Doug Mullen, supervisor of the Cabin Bar Ranch in Cartago, where he also lived as a child. But the dust problem has helped to galvanize a local group that contends Inyo County officials are ignoring it to avoid scaring away tourists, the mainstay of the local economy.

The group, the Eastern Sierra Environmental and Water Conservation Assn., includes activists fighting plans by Los Angeles to pump more ground water from the valley and local Indian bands. "Nobody mentions it, and it's the worst problem in the area," said attorney Odell, who is active in the group.

Although the lake bed itself is the property of the State Lands Commission, state law allows the local air district to impose "reasonable measures" on the city of Los Angeles to ease the dust problem. The city already pays the cost of most air quality testing.

Any solution is expected to be costly, perhaps as much as $1 million per square mile, and there are 46 square miles of lake bed where dust kicks up. The Inyo County Grand Jury last year recommended refilling Owens Lake with water now piped south in the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the channel laid across 230 miles of desert early this century by William Mulholland.

That recommendation was never acknowledged by Inyo County officials or in the local press, and the idea of persuading Los Angeles to give up the water is not regarded as realistic. "Everybody knows the simple solution is to put the water back in the lake," said Keith Bright, chairman of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. "But where is the water going to come from? You have to be practical."

Other ideas have included sand fencing, sprinkling the lake with water to settle the dust when high winds are forecast, and even covering the lake bed with four inches of gravel.

Johnny Marmolejo, 40, grew up in Keeler and has spent a lot of time on the Owens Lake bed, an uninviting place of brine ponds and miles of salt many feet deep. Quicksand has been known to swallow up cattle ("we'd see a big old hole and a little batch of fur") and the dust kicked up by boots can burn eyes and skin. He is skeptical of the gravel idea: "There isn't enough gravel in the world."

©Los Angeles Times 1991
Not for publication without permission