By Mark Grossi / The Fresno BeeIs the Valley air district doing all it can to clean the air? Could it be more aggressive?Five years ago, when The Fresno Bee published a report exposing government neglect in the fight for clean air, officials at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said they were doing everything possible.But judges and lawmakers disagreed. Court decisions and new state laws forced the district to make tougher rules.Today, progress is obvious: The Valley now meets federal standards for PM-10 -- coarse specks of dust, soot and other debris. Bad ozone days have dropped by half. The district had its cleanest summer on record in 2007.But the Valley, which stretches from Stockton to Bakersfield, is nowhere near meeting the latest federal standard for the smallest particles, which limits specks that can have more serious health effects. And over the past five years, the Valley has violated federal ozone limits more times than anywhere else in America.The public is alarmed. For the past four years, surveys have ranked air pollution as the No. 1 concern.Yet air officials today sound much as they did five years ago. They say they need another 17 years to clean up the ozone mess. And once again they say they're doing all that is allowed under the federal Clean Air Act.Instead of pushing the boundaries of federal law and passing the toughest rules possible, such as banning use of older vehicles on the worst smoggy days, the air district's latest ozone-cleanup plan relies on voluntary efforts by businesses, helped along with taxpayer money.Seyed Sadredin, executive director since March 2006, said the air district must balance the economy and health concerns.The district has enacted developer fees to counter sprawl and periodic bans on fireplace use to cut haze in the winter. But pushing too hard would cost businesses -- which Sadredin said have invested $42.5 billion in Valley air quality since 1980 -- too much, he said."We have some of the toughest regulations in the state today," Sadredin said. "But we always work with the businesses getting them involved in the process, give them flexibility if there are three ways to get to the same result air quality-wise. We let them choose the cheapest option, and sometimes people confuse that with giving them a free pass."Critics, though, say it is time to be more assertive. Tom Franz, president of the Association of Irritated Residents, a Valley-based activist group, says the district must assault the air problem like a public health agency dealing with a crisis.Said Franz: "Our lungs should not be subsidizing polluting industries -- developers, oil companies, big agriculture."The Valley's population has grown three times faster than the state during the past five years -- adding enough people since 2002 to fill another city the size of Fresno. These people are driving millions of new miles, adding tons of new pollution into the air.Yet air quality has improved. For the most part, residents in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties now breathe air that meets federal standards.High concentrations of pollution don't develop as often any more, and violations of the federal ozone standard over the past five years dropped from 125 days to 65."A true characterization, in my opinion, would be to say that significant progress has been made, but enormous challenges remain," Sadredin said.Those challenges include the air-quality bureaucracy. The local district has little control over the biggest problems -- engines and fuels for cars, trucks, boats, trains, planes and other moving sources of air pollution.State and federal agencies rule those sources, and they decide the timing of the pollution cutbacks. About 95% of the most-needed Valley reductions are outside the air district's direct authority.In a twist that seems patently unfair, the Valley's air district is responsible for meeting cleanup deadlines, no matter how fast state and federal rules clean up vehicles.A missed deadline could mean federal sanctions that include higher costs for new and expanding businesses, as well as delays for $2 billion in road-building funds. While onerous, those sanctions are rarely enforced. New and expanding businesses in the Valley were briefly required to pay extra fees several years ago. Road-building funds for this region have never been held back over air quality problems.Despite this, the district has focused on meeting deadlines and avoiding sanctions, say critics -- instead of adopting tough, creative tactics to clean the air. Of 174 tons per day of pollution removed since 2002, 111 tons is due to lawsuits and legislation.The district stirred a fierce debate, for example, by delaying the date it plans to meet federal ozone standards from 2013 to 2024, saying that passing tougher rules to make the original deadline would bankrupt the Valley.District officials say they want to speed the process with a "Fast Track" program that includes initiatives not in the federally approved plan.But many of those ideas depend on businesses and local governments to act voluntarily. Most require a lot of money that has not been raised.A plan to attack the biggest source of ozone pollution, for example, counts on $1.8 billion in as-yet-unidentified government funding to help truckers replace aging diesel rigs.Another depends on construction of a high-speed rail line through the Valley -- which is still more a dream than reality.Geography may be the biggest obstacle. It takes far less pollution here to create the same number of federal ozone-standard violations as in the South Coast Air Basin, which includes Los Angeles and Orange counties.The Valley's air district, with nearly 4 million people, has one-quarter the population of the South Coast district in four times the area. Yet the two districts usually have about the same number of ozone violations each summer.This 25,000-square-mile Valley is walled off on three sides by mountains that block regular, cleansing wind. Hot, sunny days with only light breezes make it a laboratory for creating ozone, the main gas in smog.Traffic exhaust and fumes from gasoline, paint and dairy waste collect and stew. The mess can simmer for days, forming a nasty brew of corrosive ozone that damages skin, eyes and lungs.In addition, fires from the Sierra Nevada pour smoke and smog-making chemicals into the Valley. In September, the Valley had a week of ozone violations, mostly because of a fire almost 250 miles north.The winter-time worries might be worse. Gases from cars and trucks combine with ammonia from cow waste in the Valley's booming dairy industry. The gases and the ammonia form microscopic specks of ammonium nitrate, which hang like tiny chemical bombs in the foggy air.The specks, called PM-2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs, triggering asthma, bronchitis and other ailments. The tiny chemical debris can pass into the blood and lodge in the heart.Heart disease and hardening of the arteries have been linked with these specks. Research at UCLA shows the smallest particles can inflame the human body at the most basic level -- cells.Said Dr. Andre Nel, chief of nanomedicine at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine: "I don't think there is a safe level of ultra-fine particles that has ever been established."As dangerous and complex as the area's atmospheric chemistry is, political mud wrestling is center-stage at the moment.Sadredin said battles with air district critics distract from lobbying efforts for cleanup funds, but he regularly enters the fray. He said the air district must defend its competency and track record because people will be more willing to invest in an agency that delivers results.The district's cleanup rules will require industries to invest $20 billion in the latest smog-reduction technologies. He hopes to get $188 million annually from government sources to help businesses clean up."We need to pull together as a region to make this happen," he said.Not everyone pulls in the same direction. Critics do not believe many air district board members are interested in health concerns or progressive approaches."There has been a lack of trust in this board," said Liza Bolaños, Fresno-based coordinator of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, which represents five dozen organizations ranging from the grass-roots Association of Irritated Residents to the national legal watchdog Earthjustice.State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, and fellow Democrat Sen. Michael Machado of Linden in San Joaquin County have fought for years to restructure the board. In September, Machado pushed through a state law to add four new members. Many believe the new members will favor more aggressive cleanup approaches.The new board members, to be named early next year, will include two health experts. The law also increases the number of city representatives from three to five and requires that each of the air district's largest cities -- Stockton, Bakersfield and Fresno -- has a seat. The city representatives will be appointed by their city councils. The health experts will be named by the governor.Five years ago, Machado's first attempt at changing the board makeup -- Senate Bill 999 -- sparked a feud with its members. They, in turn, launched a campaign to tell the public about district successes.Meanwhile, environmental watchdogs, such as the nonprofit Earthjustice in Oakland, filed lawsuits. Builders and dairy owners also have sued over new rules.Conflict peaked in late April when dozens of community activists lambasted the air district, claiming it ignored their ideas to craft a plan for a swifter smog cleanup. In June, the battle reached Sacramento as the state Air Resources Board approved the Valley's new ozone cleanup plan. Gov. Schwarzenegger assailed the decision, saying he thought the plan was not aggressive enough. He fired the state board's chairman. The agency's executive director soon quit.Both departing officials said the real issue had nothing to do with the Valley. They said their work on global warming was actually too progressive for Schwarzenegger's business friends.Both also defended the Valley's cleanup, saying it could not legally move any faster.Schwarzenegger appointed a new leader for the state board: Mary Nichols, whose credentials as an environmental lawyer, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official and a former top executive of the air board get respect from many environmentalists and industry representatives.Nichols also agrees with the legal time frame of the Valley's cleanup -- 2024. There was no other choice, she said. But, shortly after being named as the state board chairwoman, she said the air district did not find all the pollution reductions available.Nichols' agency in November backed away from her statement. State air board officials investigated the Valley's rules and announced that the district is as aggressive as any district in the state.Activists were disappointed, saying state officials were simply adhering to the letter of the law and ignoring good ideas.The Valley's ozone problem could be fixed years before 2024, says the International Sustainable Systems Research Center, a nonprofit group based in La Habra.In February, the center released a Valley ozone study, funded by the Hewlett Foundation, claiming to find a way to fix the air by 2013, the deadline originally set by the EPA.The research center suggested tightening measures for composting green waste, construction and mining, farm equipment and glass-melting furnaces.The biggest idea was banning use of older diesel trucks during bad-air days. The center said the district could offer public money to help truckers add pollution control devices to their rigs before imposing no-drive days.The center has since revised its ideas, offering a less radical plan to clean the air by 2017 with tougher rules on businesses, such as more controls on industrial boilers, and the use of add-on devices for diesel trucks. The no-drive days would not be required, they said.The air district's approach -- providing public money to help truckers replace their rigs over time -- is too passive and slow, center officials said."All of the district's estimates are dependent on getting new trucks on the road," said Nicole Davis of the research center. "Sometimes it takes 20 years or more before the truck fleet turns over. There are no rules to force any of this."The district criticized the study, calling it an 11th-hour surprise after many months of public meetings on the new ozone plan.Sadredin said the add-on devices -- called retrofits -- are not yet state certified, which can take years. Hundreds of different devices would need to be certified to match different truck engines, he said.Sadredin said the district believes truck replacement would be cheaper in the long run.Critics say the retrofit technology is much closer to reality than Sadredin suggests. They say the district is disregarding one of its most powerful tools: passing tough rules that force manufacturers to produce new technologies.The independent research center's leader, Jim Lents, is the former executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, perhaps the country's most aggressive air agency.Lents, who had a hand in writing the amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, helped South Coast make a dramatic turnaround, consistently reducing air violations for years.He said air districts must take unpopular stands, especially in California where air quality is a much tougher problem than anywhere else in the nation. "You rarely get progress without tough, new regulations," he said.