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City archives show how LA banned incinerators to fight smog

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Peer over backyard walls and fences and you can still sometimes see one of the main air pollution culprits: the backyard incinerator. And you can trace their demise through the city archives.

Michael Holland is L.A. City Archivist and an Off-Ramp commentator. This is a version of a piece he wrote for the city employee newspaper Alive!

Our air is much cleaner now, but smog is still as much a part of L.A.’s DNA as the movies, freeways and beaches. In the 1500s, Juan Cabrillo, moored off San Pedro Bay, described watching the smoke from native fires rise into the sky and flatten out. He called the area “the bay of smokes.”

Peer over backyard walls and fences and you can still see one of the main air pollution culprits: the backyard incinerator. And you can trace their demise through the city archives. A 1950 L.A. County report described incinerators as a “firmly established, although somewhat unique, practice of long years standing. Unique in that backyard incinerators are virtually unknown elsewhere in the country."

Homeowners and landlords had been allowed to burn their rubbish since the turn of the century. There were incinerator dealers and repair shops. In 1940, the city passed an ordinance limiting burning to between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. The changed the rules in 1946, disallowing the use of barbecues to burn rubbish, requiring spark arrestors and letting trash be burned until 10AM.

L.A. County created the the Air Pollution Control District in 1948 and targeted smokestack industries like refineries, foundries and mills. The District also wanted to go after backyard incinerators but needed a big city partner to take the first step. In the fall of 1954, as you can read in Council File 65937, the city pushed the hours of rubbish burning to 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The idea was that, without sunlight, smog wouldn’t form and the evening breezes would carry away the smoke.

Before the council vote, the city clerk sent a letter to every city in the county, advising them of the upcoming vote and the text of the resolution. Santa Monica quickly approved changing its burning hours, and Rancho Palos Verdes, El Monte and El Segundo considered it.

The archive also holds the angry letters that started coming into Mayor Norris Poulson, complaining about twilight trash burning. “Is it not enough that we must suffer from gaseous smog all day, without adding insult to injury by night burning of trash?” “Those responsible for this new law have made no study of facts…are you MEN or politicians?”

(Retouched photo of a backyard incinerator, 1954. LAPL/Herald-Examiner collection.)

But the ordinance took effect as scheduled, while the debate over who was responsible for smog continued.

The file also holds a 1956 poll of 3,000 county residents. About two-thirds of the people surveyed believed smog had gotten worse in the last year and that health suffered because of smog. Half wanted to leave L.A. because of the air pollution; 40 percent blamed industry for smog, with cars at about 30 percent and home incinerators at 5 percent.

If you didn’t have incinerators, you needed to get rid of the rubbish somehow, so more than two-thirds favored a fee for trash pickup. About 10 percent called the proposed $1.50 monthly fee “excessive.”

In any case, by the summer of 1956, the city had started to phase in trash collection in areas where incinerator use was being phased out. A total ban on incinerators was in place by October 1, 1957.

(L.A. Mayor Norris Poulson and secretary Marian Webb with pro-Krushchev telegrams and gifts from the Soviet leader.  1959. LAPL/Herald-Examiner collection.) 

Mayor Poulson was re-elected in 1957 even as the ban was taking effect, but four years later former Congressman Sam Yorty used the ban and the problems of separated waste collection in his effort to unseat Poulson.

Of course, it turns out that burning trash was only one of many source of air pollution, and many battles would follow to bring us the relatively clean air we enjoy today. But that is a story for another day.

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