Friday, January 4, 2019

How a Smoggy Schoolyard Sparked California’s Pioneering Air Quality Laws 60 Years Ago

As the 60-year Pat and Jerry Brown era of California government approaches its end, air quality is a key part of their intertwined legacy.

Governor "Pat" Brown (California State Library photo)
When Governor Pat Brown took office in January 1959, air pollution was not yet regulated at the state or national levels.  Two days after his inauguration, an eleven year-old girl wrote to him: “The smogg (sic) here in Los Angeles is so thick that it’s pitiful.”  Katy Dilkes continued, “In one of my school classes we had a fire drill.  The teachers always take roll call when we get outside.  The smogg was so thick that we could not tell if we were pink or blue.  I was thinking that since you’re Governor, I thought that maybe you could do something about it (and a little more than taking away incinerators).”  She asked, “[D]on’t you think that I, and everyone else, should have a little more to grow up to?”

On February 9, 1959, Governor Pat Brown cited Katy’s letter in his six-point air pollution control proposal to the Legislature.  Her letter and photo appeared in newspapers across the globe.

Katy Dilkes, then 11 years old, wrote a letter to Governor "Pat" Brown in January 1959 about thick smog that obscured her Los Angeles school yard.  Governor Brown cited her letter in his February 1959 message to the Legislature proposing one of the world's first comprehensive air pollution control programs. [Los Angeles Times
Photographic Archives (Collection 1429). Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.]
The following day, Brown replied to Katy, deeming her letter a “great help”: “Your description of the smog in simple, human terms has been as important to me as the great mass of technical material that we have studied on this problem.”  Brown added, “Your letter, Katy, reached beyond the problem of smog.  It reminded me of my vital duty to help insure that you and other young people have an opportunity to grow up in health and happiness.  When I think of our difficult problems in terms of our children, it makes me redouble my efforts to find the right solutions.  If we will remember our children and work with courage and confidence, I am sure we will not fail.”  He ended the letter, “Katy, I do want you to know that by taking the time to write your letter you performed a real public service.”

Brown’s point man on smog control was Warren Christopher, who later became a preeminent Los Angeles attorney and President Clinton’s Secretary of State.  On February 17, 1959, Christopher advised Brown on Detroit’s reaction to his plan, “The automobile industry officials attempted to create the impression that smog is a localized condition in Los Angeles, but State Department of Public Health experts have warned that this is a problem in every metropolitan area of California, as well as elsewhere … [A]utomobile officials seem more interested in creating resistance to smog control by pointing up high costs and necessity of inspection than in talking about their progress in devices.”

In 1959, Brown signed a law requiring the State to develop its first air quality standards.  In 1960, Brown approved a bill creating the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board, which promulgated and enforced the world’s first potent regulations of automotive exhaust.  In June 1966, Brown told an air pollution conference, "But one lesson we have learned here in California: If we had waited for the automobile industry or the federal government to act, we would have lost at least seven crucial years in the fight against smog."

Republican Governors Ronald Reagan (creation of Air Resources Board in 1967) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (signing of AB 32 global warming bill in 2006) continued a bipartisan tradition of bold, innovative air pollution control policies.  Jerry Brown added to it with his signing of climate control legislation.

Today Katy Purtee is a 71 year-old resident of New York state.  She worked as a set design artist in Hollywood and New York.  “It was shocking to me,” she recalls of the thick smog that obscured her classmates from her teacher, “All of our eyes were watering.”  Katy asked her mother for a way to express her concerns; she suggested that Katy write a letter to the new governor, Pat Brown.  It caught the eye of Warren Christopher, who asked her mother for permission to publish Katy’s letter.  Katy received mail from well-wishers around the world.

“I really do think that the two governors Brown, father and son, have been great leaders for California, which has led the way in our country, ecologically - a huge force that we desperately need more of,” says Katy Purtee today. “My husband and I try to do our little part with solar panels, hybrid cars and locally sourced food as much as possible, but government mandates and strict laws are what's really needed, I believe, for our survival.”

In the final days of the Brown era, we should recall the special relationship forged between Pat Brown and a Los Angeles schoolgirl from his first days in office.  Small voices can spark California’s worldwide leadership in environmental protection and human progress.