After spending decades and hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up stubbornly high levels of pollution, air quality officials in the San Joaquin Valley are telling federal regulators that enough is enough.
San Joaquin Valley officials say that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unfairly blaming locals for air fouled by outside sources and is failing to take into account the pollution-trapping topography of the mountain-ringed basin.
“Once we’ve done everything we can, we should not be penalized,” Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said in reference to fees his agency has imposed on local drivers and businesses in recent years after failing to meet federal deadlines to curb smog.
Sadredin and others want the federal government to ease off and not hold local officials responsible for pollution blowing in from the Bay Area and Asia and exhaust from traffic passing through the San Joaquin Valley on California’s two major north-south highways. Those pollutants, they say, mix with emissions from the region’s sprawl of farms, cities and oil fields. It all gets boxed in by mountains and an inversion layer, bakes in the sunlight and becomes more concentrated, giving the San Joaquin Valley’s 3.9-million inhabitants some of the nation’s dirtiest air.
The dispute boiled over last month, when Sadredin and other local leaders declared that smog no longer exceeds a federal health standard for ozone. They urged the EPA to approve the finding so they can end fees they began charging drivers three years ago.
But federal regulators are pushing back.
The EPA says that readings at two of the most polluted air quality monitoring sites are flawed and do not prove that the region’s air has been cleaned up enough to reach the agency’s 1979 standard for ozone. The EPA says that it will hold the San Joaquin Valley to the same standards as the rest of the nation and has asked the district for more data to back up its contention.
Community activists call the San Joaquin Valley’s ozone declaration premature — a publicity stunt — and insist that the region needs more restrictions on emissions from farms, dairies and industrial sites. They accuse air quality officials of protecting business interests over residents’ health.
“We hear that we need to get off industry’s back and stop complaining because the air is so much better now,” said Dolores Weller, interim director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. “They only want to talk about the positive, even though our air is still very dirty.”
The region’s clean-air rules are already among the most stringent in the nation and enacting stricter ones would bring economic hardship to a poor region with double-digit unemployment, air quality officials say.
Since the early 1990s, local regulators have adopted more than 500 air quality regulations, and pollution from industrial sources has dropped more than 80%. Days when hourly ozone concentrations exceeded limits have plummeted from 37 a year in 2003 to three in 2011 — and zero this year.
Breathing ozone, the worst component of smog, can harm children’s lungs, trigger respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis and worsen heart and lung disease. In Fresno, children are diagnosed with asthma at twice the rate of California as a whole. On high ozone days, hospital visits for asthma rise nearly 50%, health studies show.
Businesses across the San Joaquin Valley’s eight counties have spent an estimated $40 billion over the last 25 years to comply with clean air rules, and industry groups say the return on investment is diminishing.
Air regulators could find ways to cut industrial and agricultural emissions even further, said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis, “but they have to walk a line between the economy and air quality, and there’s always push and pull.”
The air district has instead focused campaigns on individual behavior, broadcasting “air alerts” that ask residents to carpool and avoid drive-through service when hot, stagnant weather puts the San Joaquin Valley at risk for high ozone levels. One initiative targets parents idling their vehicles as they wait to pick up their children from school.
Yet the San Joaquin Valley remains the most polluted region in the nation outside of Southern California. Like Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley still falls short of newer, tougher health standards for ozone and fine particles, or soot. San Joaquin Valley air exceeds those limits dozens of days a year.
When severely polluted basins fail to meet the EPA’s deadlines, the Clean Air Act requires local regulators to cut smog-forming emissions 20% or impose fees on major polluters to pay for emissions reduction projects.
When the San Joaquin Valley missed a deadline for ozone reduction in 2010, the EPA approved an alternative plan by the district to assess most of the penalty through a $12 increase on vehicle registration fees. The district has collected about $64 million from drivers and an additional $5 million from industrial facilities through the fees. It is using the money to replace school buses, diesel trucks and farm irrigation pumps with cleaner models.
At the same time, the district is paying to lobby federal lawmakers to repeal that provision of the Clean Air Act, calling it an “unfair federal mandate.”
Sadredin, the air pollution district executive, has offered testimony to Congress that the government’s air quality standards are impossible to meet. On a Fresno radio talk show over the summer, he described his agency’s governing board as pro-business and conservative and said the ultimate solution would be for the EPA to “back off.”
He and others note that about 80% of the San Joaquin Valley’s air pollution comes from mobile sources, including cars, trucks and tractors that are regulated by the state and beyond the air district’s reach. They also cite studies measuring polluted air drifting into the valley from Asia and argue that they should not be liable because it is from outside the United States.
The air district’s latest disagreement with the EPA centers on air monitors in two of the San Joaquin Valley’s smoggiest places. One in the Kern County community of Arvin was moved to a location with better readings after its lease expired in 2010 and another in Fresno was turned off nearly one-fifth of the time in 2011, according to the EPA.
San Joaquin Valley air regulators are now drafting a report to submit to state and federal regulators in support of their smog declaration. The document, they say, will explain that the Fresno air monitor was shut down for maintenance during the morning and in winter, when ozone is not a concern. It will also cite a study last summer that showed the new monitor in Arvin registers higher pollution levels than the old site.
“We may get bogged down on a technicality” Sadredin said, “but we believe we have solid scientific support.”