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Houston Tops L.A. As Smog Capital

October 27, 1999

HOUSTON (AP) _ It was probably just a chemical belch at a factory on the edge of town. But it was enough to push Houston past Los Angeles to become the smoggiest city in America.

Houston and Los Angeles were running neck-and-neck in air pollution stakes until Oct. 7, when the nation’s fourth-largest city surpassed the second-largest by recording its 44th smog day of the year.

``The day that will live in infamy,″ Houston Health Department spokeswoman Kathy Barton said. ``Really.″

As of Wednesday, the Houston count had reached 46. Los Angeles was still at 43. A smog day is when the ozone level rises above a certain mark set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Exactly what caused the smog remains a mystery.

Researchers know that large clouds of ethylene and propylene billowed over the city Oct. 7, and believe the gases were the product of one of the industrial plants on the edge of town. But they don’t know which one.

The search has been narrowed down to 25 factories, all clustered around the Houston Ship Channel, home of the nation’s largest concentration of petrochemical plants.

Los Angeles has had smoggy air for decades and has long been the butt of jokes about it.

Researchers said unusually dry weather played a part in trapping dirty air over Houston, and Los Angeles may very well reclaim the title.

``We’ll probably pass it back and forth with each other for a few more years,″ said Gene McMullen, who has been monitoring pollution levels for the Health Department in Houston for decades. ``It’ll depend on whose weather is worse.″

Texas is staring at an EPA deadline next month to come up with a plan to clean its skies by 2007. The government has threatened to take away money for Texas highway construction if the state doesn’t start making progress soon.

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