Ending years of debate, federal officials are about to grant an 11-year delay for the San Joaquin Valley's ozone cleanup campaign.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to publish its proposed approval in the Federal Register in the next few days, and it will become official by the end of September.
The action pushes the deadline to 2024, an extension the local air district requested more than two years ago after stormy public discussions with activists. Officials said it was impossible to clean up the air so quickly in one of the nation's most fouled air basins.
But more could have been done for residents, who must suffer more than a decade longer than they should have, said Kathryn Phillips of the Environmental Defense Fund in Sacramento.
"I'm disappointed and feel especially heartbroken for the people, especially children and elderly, who have compromised health already and will have to endure even more years of bad air in the Valley," she said.
Officials at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said the EPA should have blessed the 2024 deadline years ago. Executive director Seyed Sadredin said the agency set an unrealistically early deadline of 2013 to dodge a fight with activists.
"The EPA did it this way for political convenience," he said.
Federal officials responded that the Clean Air Act directs them to assign deadlines by using a formula based on concentrations of ozone. Officials this week said they will agree to the extension in the next few months because the district has proved that it cannot hit the 2013 target.
"It's up to the state and the district to figure out how to achieve the standard in the shortest time possible," said Kerry Drake, associate director of the EPA's regional air division, based in San Francisco. "If they find they can't do it, then they ask for an extension."
The extension comes with strings. New and expanding businesses will spend more money now on air-quality permits. Several hundred smaller farms must now begin paying permit fees and accounting for pollution.
EPA took more than two years to answer the request, Drake said, because the agency also was studying the same issue for other California districts.
EPA will grant delays for other California air districts, including South Coast, Coachella Valley and Sacramento. The delays range from four to 11 years.
The state has the worst ozone problem in the nation. Ozone is a corrosive gas that forms on warm days in sunlight as vehicle exhaust combines with fumes from such sources as dairies, paint and gasoline. Ozone triggers lung problems, including asthma and bronchitis.
In 2008, the Valley led the nation in ozone violations.
Because of the health problems, Valley activists pushed hard to keep the 2013 deadline. Air officials said that even if all Valley businesses were closed, the deadline could not be met.
The biggest hurdle is replacement of diesel trucks, which could cost billions of dollars over the next decade. Diesel engines are the largest source of nitrogen oxides, a primary building block of ozone.
The local air district has little control over the engines, which are regulated by the California Air Resources Board.
But activists said the air district could have required high-tech add-on devices to control diesel pollution, rather than relying on replacing engines over time.
Activists also suggested more stringent rules, such as prohibiting the use of older farm tractors, trucks and vehicles on bad-air days.