This past summer, a team of scientists in California assembled to study the state's famous smog problem. Armed with $6 million in federal and state funds, the researchers gathered their equipment -- dozens of weather balloons, an array of small airplanes, smog meters and lasers. While they waited for the smog to show up, California enjoyed one of its clearest summers ever. During the study period, from June 15 to October 15, there was only one day -- July 4 -- when the air over Los Angeles was dirty enough for full-scale study. That lone, first-stage smog alert proved to be a rarity fueled by heavy holiday traffic and several wildfires.

There were no such days in the San Francisco Bay area -- where ozone pollution never exceeded federal standards all summer. But there was $6 million to spend, so they went ahead with the study anyway. During the four-month period, there were nine days when just enough smog appeared to warrant sending up the equipment, and study participants claimed that they gathered some useful data. But other observers reported that industrial smoke-stack scrubbers and clean-burning gasoline had so cleansed the air in Southern California that there was very little smog to study. El Nino winds were also blamed for the lack of pollution. The supervisor of the study -- which had taken five years of planning -- conceded that it couldn't be described as anything but a major disappointment to the sponsoring California Air Resources Board.

The $6 million spent included $1. 3 million in federal funds. Source: Thomas D. Elias, 'California's Clean Air Disrupts Experiment to Track State's Smog,' Washington Times, October 28, 1997.