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California county wants emergency money to deal with toxic dust as lake shrinks

Matthew McNulty

Toxic dust being blown around as a Southern California lake shrinks is pushing officials in one county to push for state and federal emergency declarations to deal with the problem.

The Salton Sea is shrinking because water that would normally flow to it is being diverted to cities, the Desert Sun reports. As it shrinks, contaminants and caustic impurities from decades of past military testing and agricultural runoff have created the perfect storm for dangerous dust pollution.

The water diversion had been expected for 14 years, yet state and federal officials have yet to agree on a plan for the lake.

On Tuesday, Imperial County supervisors will vote on whether or not state or federal intervention will be necessary, according to the Desert Sun.

The Salton Sea Test Base has long been used by the U.S. Navy and other military agencies to test weaponry, while the Salton Sea itself was created back in 1905 as an irrigation canal. Those two factors have compounded the issue of toxic dust pollution in the county.

The Imperial County air pollution control board says it’s "aware of harmful dust and pollution at the Salton Sea that is harming Imperial County citizens," according to the board's agenda. "This is a peril to human life and a crisis beyond the control of the local County of Imperial."

County Supervisor and chairman of the county’s air pollution control board Ryan Kelley said that he recommended the request for emergency federal funding two weeks ago and that he has the support of his fellow board supervisors.

"This is a disaster beyond our means," Kelley to the Sun. "If we declare a local emergency, it gets sent to the state, and then Gov. Newsom has to make a decision. If he doesn't declare a state emergency, he's ignoring a major health crisis. If he does, it opens up the Emergency Services Act, and permitting and procurement materials and equipment are streamlined."

California state policy does allow for an emergency declaration in case of extreme air pollution.

Local emergencies have to be declared to the state within 10 days of a disaster in order for funds to be disbursed. From there, the governor or the state director of emergency services review the request, with the governor having 30 days following the disaster to request a declaration for a presidential emergency.

"We've got a whole list of challenges for the feds and for the state that they need to address," Kelley told the Desert Sun.

Deputy Natural Resources Secretary Lisa Lien-Mager offered at least a modicum of hope for Imperial County, claiming the agency is intent on “reducing emissions from dust sources in the region,” while recommending an “important solution … to expand dust suppression projects at the Salton Sea and to address other sources of dust."

"The state is intensely focused on implementing 15,000 acres of dust suppression as quickly as possible, along with another 15,000 acres of wetlands to cover exposed playa,” Lien-Mager said. “More than $200 million is committed for this work in the near term. In addition, the California Air Resources Board, the local air quality district and the Imperial Irrigation District are working on several pilot projects to test effectiveness of various dust suppression techniques that can improve conditions on the ground.”

Toxic air pollution has been linked to reduced lifespans in countries that do not follow World Health Organization smog standards.

The governor's office and FEMA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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