China’s bad air adds to the San Joaquin Valley’s problems, but the toxic nightmare is already here

Air pollutants trapped in the central San Joaquin Valley form a curtain of bad air that can easily been seen from this higher vantage in Sequoia National Park.
Air pollutants trapped in the central San Joaquin Valley form a curtain of bad air that can easily been seen from this higher vantage in Sequoia National Park. Special to The Bee

Fireworks erupted late on a clear Sunday morning – a wedding during Golden Week celebrations honoring Chinese independence. It was in full swing only a short time before a cloud of soot turned the air into a murky mess in this port city of 9 million.

The air-quality index leaped from a healthy green to a lung-searing red. A soot siege had floated into the city from coal-fired power plants. Yet Golden Week celebrations continued to mark the founding of the People's Republic of China, dating back to 1949.

The scene epitomizes Western stereotypes about Chinese people who seemingly ignore stifiling pollution. Restaurants filled with customers. Smiling people danced on sidewalks as boom boxes played Chinese music. Families gathered at gorgeous West Lake in Hangzhou. This historic city serves as capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China, and it does not stop for pollution.

Six thousand miles east, California watches and for good reason. China’s soot and ozone gases ride the high-elevation jet stream to California, scientists say. Coal particles have even been collected in monitoring traps amid the majestic giant sequoia groves of the southern Sierra Nevada, east of Fresno.

But on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, there’s more to the story. On the U.S. side, the pollution coming from China is not nearly the biggest problem in California – especially for the troubled San Joaquin Valley.

And in China, more and more people are calling for leaders to crack down on pollution. At a retail store near Hangzhou’s business district, a merchant said people know they are downwind victims of life-shortening pollution. They’re demanding changes.

“China is changing,” the business woman said in Chinese. “We have electric cars and buses. People outside China don’t know how much we care about our children. We speak up. We won’t live like this.”

A 2013 study published in Science of the Total Environment confirmed the fears of many in China: Dirty air caused premature death for 1.4 million Chinese people in one year.

“Think of Pittsburgh and steel manufacturing in the 1960s,” says economist Mun Ho of the Harvard China Project. “In terms of air quality and industry, that’s the comparison between China and the United States right now. China has come a long way already in modernizing and moving quickly. But it still has a long way to go.”

Oddly, green-thinking California – with some of the most stringent air-quality rules in the world – has a pollution problem in common with China. The state’s two dirtiest air basins in the country – the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California – are years away from air that passes health standards in their country.

For the San Joaquin Valley, this dark scenario is already breaking bad, mostly because climate change, dwindling groundwater, poverty and early death are already here. China’s pollution is just adding to a natural resources disaster.

The Valley suffers a notorious trifecta – dirty air, contaminated drinking water and, more recently, an intense five-year drought that ravaged the state’s most important natural resource – the Sierra Nevada. Together with poverty and a host of other factors, life has become perilous in rural areas.

Air pollution has become a headline over decades as the Valley struggles to meet new standards. In the next decade, as federal regulations whittle down the amount of dirty-air emissions, the Valley will need to nearly eliminate internal combustion engines – meaning the electric car will have to become far more common. That’s why China’s dirty air dumping into the Valley raises a tougher question than most areas in the state will face.

Even with a huge investment in solar and electric vehicle technologies, will the Asian pollution trigger violations of the newer, tougher federal health standards?

Science does not know enough yet to figure exactly how much of the Asian pollution is coming down from high elevations to affect people on the ground, says Eileen McCauley, who manage research on atmospheric processes for the California Air Resources Board.

“In satellite photos, you can see the pollution moving across the ocean,” she says. “At 20,000 feet up in the jet stream, it’s not a problem. But it does mix downward in the atmosphere to lower elevations. We need to know a lot more to assess it.”

Central California’s vexing burden

Southern California’s metroplex has long been known as America’s smog kingpin with its clogged freeways and nasty ozone peaks, but the San Joaquin Valley’s air has been quietly worse over the last 16 years. With only a fourth of the population in the South Coast Air Basin, the Valley has exceeded the eight-hour federal ozone standard more often than any other air basin in the country since 2000.

Yet, the 25,000-square-mile Valley is four times larger than the South Coast Air Basin. Traffic jams don’t exist here compared to Los Angeles. The Valley is several million acres of farming – a tranquil, emerald expanse stretching to the horizon.

So what’s happening here? Scientists and air quality leaders say the inland valley is an incubator for dirty air. Surrounded by mountains and plagued by dry, stagnant weather patterns, atmospheric chemicals can quickly build up and turn the air into a corrosive brew.

“The Valley is unlike anywhere else in the United States,” says Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “A small amount of pollution does a lot more damage here than most anywhere.”

Over the last several decades, the Valley has waged a $40 billion war against air pollution, which each year kills nearly 1,000 people before their time. There has been steady improvement, but it hasn’t been good enough.

The region still exceeds the eight-hour federal ozone health threshold more than 80 times a year. Most big cities in the United States have never blown through the ozone threshold that many times in a year.

Plus, the Valley annually has the nation’s worst PM-2.5, or microscopic specks of chemicals, dust and moisture, the American Lung Association’s studies have shown over many years. Bakersfield, Visalia and Fresno – all Valley cities – are usually the worst three cities in the country.

Dirty air would be enough to raise red flags for public health of nearly 4 million Valley people living in the arid stretch between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But the air is only one of many health issues related to living in the Valley.

Poverty, tainted groundwater, naturally dusty conditions, low birth weights and lack of access to health care have landed more than a dozen largely rural Valley areas among the 20 riskiest places in California to live, according to calculations by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.

People live shorter lives in these areas, compared to more affluent places, such as northeast Fresno.

And, like many low-profile inland areas, Valley rural communities are near a host of industries that often don’t locate in big cities – including prisons, field spreading operations for Southern California’s treated sewage, trucking distribution centers, dairies and hazardous waste landfills.

The region has the state’s worst nitrate contamination in groundwater, the biggest cause being past heavy use of farm fertilizers as well as dairies and sewage treatment.

The nitrate contamination will take many years to remedy, but it’s not the only water problem. The underground water supply in some places disappeared during the drought.

Desperate farmers have pumped the underground water to protect their investments in an agricultural machine worth more than $35 billion annually. In the process, shallower wells around small towns and communities went dry.

The numbers are staggering. In 2012, valley farmers drilled fewer than 500 new wells. In 2015, after years of drought, the valley farm industry drilled about 3,000, the California Department of Water Resources reported. As the water table dropped, drillers began digging wells closer and closer to 3,000 feet deep – the estimated depth where they would hit saline water left from a time when an ancient inland sea filled the Valley.

Thousands of private wells have gone dry, shutting down indoor plumbing for residents who are already stressed in poverty and pollution. Many drink bottled water while living in communities surrounded by flourishing citrus orchards or fields with row crops.

The farm water pumping may wind up costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The water is mined from below, resulting in the landscape sinking or subsiding – more than two feet in a single year in some areas, threatening canals, small dams, roads, bridges and buildings. The U.S. Geological Survey has long considered the Valley the most altered landscape on the globe.

But perhaps the most far-reaching problem from drought and the warming climate is the damage being done to one of California’s most prized natural resources – the 450-mile-long Sierra Nevada, on the Valley’s east side.

The range provides millions of acre-feet of water from pure snowmelt. The forests filter clouds of dirty air, and act as a monstrous carbon sink. But, during the drought, more than 100 million trees have perished, making massive wildfires unavoidable over several million acres of forest.

In the dry conditions, fires in the last three years have turned the air hazardous in many areas as mushroom clouds of lung-damaging smoke pour into communities.

The fires can last for months. In 2015, the Rough Fire east of Fresno started in late July and burned until early November, torching a footprint more than 235 square miles – about the size of Chicago.

A 2013 blaze, the Rim Fire in the Yosemite National Park area, sent up a pyrocumulus cloud that could be seen 100 miles away. Foothill air monitors showed PM-2.5 levels comparable to the dreaded soot sieges in Beijing.

Practices from decades ago called for snuffing every fire, and it allowed the forests to grow unnaturally thick. Nitrogen from the ozone pollution in the Valley also has helped spur forest growth. Now dense, dry forests are primed for the next runaway campfire or lightning strike.

“You can’t do much to mitigate the smoke in these wildfires,” says Malcolm North, forest ecologist at the University of California, Davis, and researcher at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station. “The fires are inevitable. They will continue to increase significantly as the climate warms.”

Making a leap of several decades

As the San Joaquin Valley’s natural resources face a slow-motion train wreck, China falls more in love with the automobile and continues as the world’s largest consumer of coal, though coal production has slowed in the last three years.

The car craze is evident in Hangzhou, a jewel of an Asian city. Hangzhou embraces memories and tradition dating back thousands of years while growing into a modern political and progressive city.

The streets are jammed with Hondas, Toyotas, Volkswagens and American cars made by GM and others. But it’s the high-end Mercedes, BMWs, Bentleys and Rolls Royces that stand out. The city is a hotbed of entrepreneurs and ambition as a glittering financial district attests.

Hangzhou, like many Chinese cities, changed dramatically as the country moved into the modern world after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Three decades ago, hordes of bicycles and far fewer cars passed through Hangzhou – a place that medieval sojourner Marco Polo once described as “city of paradise.”

At the same time, China’s air pollution has become synonymous with the term “airpocolypse,” hazy vistas and photographs of people struggling to breathe. Economists say the pollution costs billions of dollars annually in health costs and early mortality.

China’s air standards are not as strong or well-enforced as the ones in the United States. For PM-2.5 – microscopic soot and chemicals – the Chinese government says up to 75 micrograms per cubic meter of air is healthy. The World Health Organization’s threshold is less than half that figure at 35. The U.S. government is in the process of lowering the 35-microgram threshold.

Hangzhou officials are trying to change China’s dirty-air image in their city. Buses here are electric. City residents are offered the use of electric cars for about $1,200 a year. Everywhere, there are electric motorbikes cruising through enlarged bicycle lanes.

Hangzhou this year took a cue from Beijing, which closed many factories before the 2008 Olympics to help clear the air. Before hosting the economic G20 economic summit in September, Hangzhou slowed business activities to hold down crowds and pollution, and it largely worked.

But the slowdown hurt businesses.

“We lost 15 percent of our business this year for the G20,” says one executive of a longtime service business in Hangzhou. “Things can change so fast that you always face uncertainty for your business here.”

In a country where traditions linger thousands of years, the government moves with blinding speed compared to the United States, says economics professor Matthew E. Kahn of the University of Southern California.

One example: As vehicles crowd into larger cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, leaders are pushing polluting factories out into more rural areas, Kahn writes in his book “Blue Skies Over Beijing: Economic Growth and the Environment in China.” If the practice goes on long enough, the larger cities will slow down the pollution generated by more cars – but maybe at the expense of air quality in rural areas.

Aside from air pollution, the relocation of factories in rural areas has created new streams of pollution in Chinese farming areas, Kahn writes. Wastewater dumping near farm fields in the general area of a state-supported chemical plant has been reported by growers.

More than 40 percent of rice samples in the city of Guangzhou had toxic levels of cadmium, which is a metal associated with kidney problems. It is estimated China loses $3 billion annually to soil pollution.

The loss of money gets the government’s attention, and health problems due to pollution also affect the bottom line, Kahn says. As China becomes more affluent, people are willing to pay more money for clean air, clean water and healthy food, Kahn says.

“This matters in China because the government wants the economy to grow by 7 percent each year,” Kahn says. “To do that, China is going to need great companies like Twitter or more companies like its own internet marketing company Alibaba. If the best Chinese minds are moving to Australia or San Francisco or somewhere else, there’s going to be a brain drain.”

Such a financial connection to the environment is known as the green economy, which has not caught on a big way yet in many countries, including the United States. China has subsidized renewable energy, though it also has subsidized coal production, according to the Global Studies Initiative, based in Switzerland.

Kahn says China may invest a lot more in the green economy simply because of self-interest.

“Look at a supposedly rich country like Saudi Arabia as a green economist would,” he says. “Saudi Arabia in reality is not such a rich country. It has damaged its environment in producing oil, so you would deduct value from the economy for the damage. You need to think in those terms, especially in the long-term.”

As the climate warms

Standing at western the edge of magnificent Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park, air resources specialist Annie Esperanza says a monitoring station up here picks up specks of Asian coal dust. The monitoring station is not far from 2,000-to-3,000-year-old trees.

“The mercury from coal burning travels well,” she says. “It adds to the stress for trees, which are already under assault from drought, beetles and heat.”

The world’s largest tree by volume lives here. The General Sherman Tree is nearly 18 feet in diameter. Weighing millions of pounds, it is in the last natural groves of giant sequoias on Earth. Sequoia National Park and the surrounding southern Sierra are home to most of these groves, and they are part of an irreplaceable natural heritage in California.

Major tourist destinations in the Western U.S. often include California beaches, Disneyland, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Sierra has an all-star lineup too, featuring Lake Tahoe, world-class ski resorts, giant sequoias, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, along with the breathtaking jagged peaks, high desert and volcanic landscape of the Eastern Sierra. The western slope of the Sierra has 25 million acres of forests – a footprint larger than Maine.

But the Sierra goes well beyond star power for tourists. For businesses, industries and cities, it’s about snow for Californians, who get more than a third of their water from snowmelt.

Californians like to say the Sierra is the snowiest range in the country. In a place called Tamarack, north of Yosemite, a U.S. record 454 inches of snow fell in January 1911. Snow depth that year was measured at nearly 38 feet, which was another U.S. record. In average years, blizzards batter the high Sierra with an annual whiteout that fuels the Golden State’s summer.

Dig a little deeper to find the thorny issues confronting the Sierra’s forests. The forests have suffered over the last century from misunderstanding, development, drought and now climate change.

And as the climate warms, the Sierra’s issues will only become more important, scientists say, mainly because the forests are primed for catastrophic fire. It is already happening, says Dave Sapsis, fire modeling and behavior specialist for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“Seven out of the 10 largest and most damaging fires on record have happened since 2000,” he says.

Yet Sierra forests need fire. They thrive on small, periodic fire to burn back excess brush and smaller trees in dense stands. Fire is natural here, often sparked by summer lightning strikes.

Because there were not as many dense stands of trees and brush in centuries past, these ecosystems were fire resilient before widespread fire suppression began. Native Americans understood the idea. They intentionally set small, slow-moving fires in the past.

Fire expert North of UC Davis says the job of cleaning out the forests is too big for mechanical thinning – imagine decades of work with little hope of catching up. He says many of the continuing fire suppression efforts are not helping.

Some fires will have to just burn, North says, adding that prescribed or deliberately planned and controlled burning must also be a bigger tool. National parks, such as Yosemite and Sequoia, have been well-managed for fire by using prescribed burning for many years.

“We need to concentrate on the watersheds and let fire do the maintenance,” he says.

But North and others acknowledge that smoke is an air quality problem. Wildfire smoke has blotted out the sun on some days in the San Joaquin Valley, triggering a rash of lung problems, particularly among children, asthmatics and the elderly.

Forest managers have butted heads with the valley air district, which is responsible for protecting the public. In 2005, the air district fined the National Park Service $25,000 for a brush-clearing fire in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The fire was ignited in defiance of a no-burn order.

Air health advocates sided with the air district, saying the smoke could literally cause a fatal episode for people with sensitive lungs. The Wilderness Society, a national nonprofit conservation group, sided with the Park Service.

"I understand the short-term concern for the air during a controlled burn,” said Wilderness Society regional director Sarah Barth, at the time. “But the controlled burn is helping to prevent a catastrophic fire, which is as bad as it gets for air quality."

Forest managers and the air district have worked closely for many years to prevent further confrontations. But the health issues of smoke will not go away as the climate warms over the rest of the century, scientists say.

Ian Faloona, a UC Davis associate professor and atmospheric researcher, has been on a mission for years to track Asian pollution in California, but he says smoke looms as a pressing immediate problem in the San Joaquin Valley.

To track Asian pollution, Faloona takes advantage of a coastal monitoring spot at an astronomical observatory in the Santa Lucia Mountains, near Big Sur. At 5,000 feet in elevation, it’s a good place to detect the Asian pollution – ozone – coming across the Pacific on the jet stream.

In the Valley, he has been involved in NASA flyovers each summer to sample air, as researchers document ozone-making chemicals. Each year since 2013, Faloona has noticed a lot of smoke from forest fires. In addition to particle pollution, wood fires produce a lot of ozone precursors, such as oxides of nitrogen.

He says people working on the NASA flights are now forced to take into account the chemicals come from smoke.

“We’re gradually beginning to realize that smoke has become an integral ingredient in the pollution problem here,” he says. “Fire season is no longer most concentrated in September. We’re seeing fires raging in June each year now.

“We do need to account for the international pollution coming into California. But the longer fire season as the climate warms will be a pressing issue in this state. We need to face that fact now.”

About this report

Former Bee reporter Mark Grossi was a 2016 fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based Alicia Patterson Foundation. This is the fourth and final in a series of stories he wrote that focus on the San Joaquin Valley’s rural areas where people face environmental challenges.

Read some of Grossi’s reporting while he was at The Bee, archived on his blog: www.fresnobee.com/earth-log