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Smog Fears High in Central Valley

Times Staff Writer

Public anxiety in the Central Valley over air pollution now exceeds smog worries in Los Angeles, with nearly 40% of residents in the state’s vast and fast-growing midsection saying a family member suffers serious respiratory problems, a new survey says.

The poll by the Public Policy Institute of California and the nonprofit Great Valley Center found that residents of the region also worry about growth, the economy and water but that they are mostly contented.

Three-quarters of the respondents said they are troubled by air pollution, with 41% concluding that it’s a serious problem. In Los Angeles County, a nearly identical poll in March found that 37% consider smog a big problem.

“It’s pretty stunning that Central Valley residents are more concerned about air pollution than people in L.A. County, the bad-air poster child for so many years,” said Mark Baldassare, the Public Policy Institute’s state survey director. “Air pollution has been transformed from a quality-of-life issue to a health issue for many people in the valley.”

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The poll, to be released today, reflects a growing trend in the Central Valley’s 19-county region, an area with 3.4 million people, 2.4 million passenger vehicles and California’s worst air. Over the last two years, the valley’s air violated federal standards on 226 days, while the Los Angeles region recorded 201 bad-air days. Last year, the “good air” standard was reached, on average, only once a week.

Poll results showed concern was greatest in the valley’s southern end, the region tagged by air-quality experts as suffering the worst pollution because of hemmed-in topography and climatic conditions. With chronic lung illnesses troubling the region, the survey found that 37% of the respondents or someone in their immediate family suffers such respiratory problems as asthma. That total hops to 41% for homes with children younger than 18.

Among those who say they’re suffering the consequences of air pollution is Fred Dukes, 82, of Bakersfield. The retired high school principal has lived in the valley more than 50 years, and now suffers from emphysema. He never smoked and figures bad air is the likely culprit.

“I think it’s a critical issue here,” Dukes said. “I don’t think a lot of the major interests have realized it yet. They pay a lot of lip service, but they’re not willing to accept all costs of doing something about it.”

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Besides the air pollution generated by automobiles and a booming fleet of commercial big-rig trucks zooming across the valley, it is also caused by oil refineries, dust from farming operations, the diesel fumes of pumps and a variety of other factors.

While willing to switch to cleaner-running vehicles, valley residents are less supportive of government efforts they consider anti-business. In a region where 72% say they drive alone to work, half say they’d switch to public transit if it meant clearing the air. Meanwhile, 79% (and 77% of SUV owners) suggest they’d be willing to drive a lower-emission vehicle. But support for federal air regulations plummeted to 39% if such sanctions hurt the economy.

The poll surveyed 2,000 Central Valley residents April 10-21. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2%.

It found a growing ill ease over the economy. Although more than one-third of respondents rated the region’s economy as good or excellent, nearly half said they believe their region is in recession.

Residents also expressed concern over the water supply, with nearly half saying it’s at least something of a problem. Likewise, more than half favor water conservation rather than new reservoirs, a jump from surveys in prior years.

The state’s budget crisis has valley residents worried about cuts in kindergarten-through-12th-grade education (56% rated it their top priority) and public health and social services (21%).

As for the future, 22% peg population growth as the most important issue facing the valley, while 16% pointed to pollution and 12% identified water. Meanwhile, a key issue affecting the valley’s future -- an upcoming $10-billion state ballot measure to fund a high-speed rail system looping through the valley to link Southern California with the Bay Area -- barely mustered majority support. The poll found 52% would vote for the bond, while 42% are opposed and 6% remain undecided.


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