Air-quality changes bring mixed reviews
The Valley’s summertime air is dangerous at times — 91 ozone violations and counting this year. And you’re paying a $29 million annual fine for failing to clean it up faster.
So are you any better off now than you were 10 years ago?
Yes, say government watchdog agencies. Not really, say environmentalists, health advocates and community activist groups.
More than 40% of a key ozone-making gas — NOx — is gone now. Also gone are terrible years like 2002 when smog sieges created a lung-searing 158 violations.
In 2002, environmental lawsuits were making headlines and building a fever for change. That year, The Fresno Bee published a 24-page section, “Last Gasp,” focused on air quality.
Now as this ozone season winds down, the air here still is not healthy.
Fresno and Bakersfield continue to appear in the American Lung Association national rankings among the five cities most polluted by ozone. This year, those two cities, Clovis, Parlier and Arvin all had more than 40 violations. The goal is zero.
The Valley has a long way to go, says Kerry Drake, associate director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air division in San Francisco. Still, he sees hope to meet the cleanup deadline of late 2023 for the eight-hour ozone standard — an average of ozone readings over eight-hour periods.
“I know it seems hard to believe that we could make it,” he said. “But technology, pollution reduction and public awareness have come so far in the last 10 years. It is definitely better now in the Valley.”
Unfortunately, the 25,000-square-mile Valley is a friend to ozone, more so than almost anywhere in the country.
The recipe for creating ozone reads like a Valley profile: You need heat, sunlight, stagnant air, NOx (oxides of nitrogen) from cars and trucks, and pollutants coming from dairies, gasoline and other sources. And since the Valley is a gigantic bowl, it often traps ozone for days.
The South Coast Air Basin creates 60% more ozone-making gas than the Valley, according to California Air Resources Board emission records. Yet the Valley has averaged more ozone violations over the past 10 years.
The best reasons to clean it up: The corrosive gas triggers asthma and other lung illnesses. Sometimes, it kills people before their time.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has passed many of the toughest rules in the nation, among them the pioneering control of pollution coming from agriculture, said Seyed Sadredin, executive director.
“Despite significant reductions in emissions and even with the toughest air regulations, our challenges are tougher than any other region in the nation,” he said.
Activists agree about the challenge, but they say the groundbreaking rules for agriculture and other pollution sources were forced by environmental lawsuits.
And even so, the district wrote rules that are not so tough, says Kevin Hall, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, representing dozens of groups.
For instance, activists five years ago suggested banning the use of old, polluting trucks, cars, boats and commercial equipment on the smoggiest summer days. The district rejected the idea, saying it would be too harsh on business.
“There are too many times when the district board says we can’t get something done,” Hall said. “We need leadership that says it can be done.”
Politics have become a central feature of ozone cleanup over the last decade. One example is the furor over moving the air monitor at the Kern County city of Arvin, which a few years ago was the biggest smog trap in the country.
The state Air Resources Board lost the lease for the location of the monitor two years ago, so a new one was set up at a school two miles away.
Suddenly, Arvin no longer was a national leader in ozone violations. Activists still are incensed.
Tom Franz, a Kern County resident who is part of the advocacy group Association of Irritated Residents, says he thinks Arvin would have 77 violations this year if the old site still was used. The new monitor shows 45 violations.
District leader Sadredin replies the new monitor is at a more appropriate place where children play outdoors. The old monitor was at an irrigation district office.
There also is friction between the district and the federal government over the $29 million annual ozone fine — most of which is paid by registered vehicle owners.
The fine was triggered when the Valley missed the 2010 cleanup deadline for the federal one-hour ozone standard.
Though the standard was abolished seven years ago, federal law still requires attainment. Sadredin says more than 90% of one-hour violations have been eliminated.
Said Sadredin: “We think it’s unreasonable to make the Valley pay $29 million for a few hours of readings over the standard.”
By Mark Grossi