Valley voters' lives affected by air pollution, and they want change, survey finds

Most San Joaquin Valley voters likely would support more restrictions on residents and businesses to improve air quality, especially young women who are Democrats, a recent Fresno State survey found.

The survey was conducted by Fresno State's Institute for Leadership and Public Policy between Feb. 5 and Feb. 15, a time shortly after the region experienced several weeks of poor air quality.

At the end of December 2017, the San Joaquin Valley endured weeks of unhealthy or very unhealthy air quality and was plagued by level-5 concentrations of particulate matter, the worst ranking possible. Regulators were criticized online for public outreach during the period and soon began offering air alerts in Spanish. Just a month later in late January, air quality conditions again turned bad, and the Valley Air District restricted burning and cautioned residents about outdoor activities.

"The purpose of the survey is to give voice to residents of the San Joaquin Valley so that our elected officials can make informed policy decisions," said Jeff Cummins, a professor of political science and the co-director of the institute. "Air-quality issues have plagued our region for decades, so the survey illustrates how it remains a significant problem and points to some possible further solutions to address it."

The Fresno State survey found about three in four registered voters pay very close or fairly closed attention to air quality, and more than half restrict their activities or those of their children when air quality is poor.

The Valley Air District recommends residents should begin to reduce outdoor activities when the real-time outdoor activity risk reaches level three or higher.

The Security Bank Building looms faintly in the background, looking down Blackstone Avenue, during a bad air day, looking east from Highway 180, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 28, 2017. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

The results showed registered voters who are women are more concerned with air quality than male voters, with nearly 80 percent saying they pay very close or fairly close attention to air quality.

Attention to air quality also rises with the education level of the respondents. More than 80 percent of those with a bachelor's degree or higher pay very close or fairly close attention to air quality. Latino respondents were the most likely to say they restrict their activities or their children's compared to whites and non-Latino, non-white voters. People registered as No Party Preference overwhelmingly paid attention to air quality, at 80 percent.

"We appreciate that it appears residents in the Valley are very concerned about air quality and are taking action to protect themselves," said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the air district. "It also appears much of what is in the initial results of the study are in line with some of the things we found in market research surveys we’ve done over the years."

Support for more restrictions on residents and businesses to improve air quality was mostly split along party lines, race and ethnicity and age. Democrats were more supportive of restrictions compared to Independents and Republicans. Most Republicans, six in 10, would not support more restrictions.

Latinos and non-white, non-Latino voters were more supportive of restrictions on residents and businesses compared to whites.

Support for restrictions declined with age, with 43 percent of voters 55 and older supportive.

Survey respondents also appeared to be well informed on the matter.

Of those who supported restrictions, 51 percent support restrictions that would reduce commercial vehicle emissions such as semi trucks. Forty percent of voters who support restrictions said they'd support reducing agricultural pollution.

"That’s right in line with what the biggest source of pollution is in the Valley," Holt said." The largest source of pollution in the Valley is heavy-duty semi trucks."

But what does it actually take for new regulations to be passed?

Vehicle emissions in California are regulated at the state level, and new regulations are applied statewide, Holt said. For the last 15 years or so, the Valley Air District has used grant money for incentives aimed at getting truck drivers and motorists into cleaner vehicles, she said.

California tends to enforce tougher air quality standards on vehicles than other places across the country, but many states follow the Golden State's lead on air quality standards, Holt said.

Surveyors interviewed a total of 634 registered voters in English in the eight Valley counties: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare. Phone numbers were randomly selected by county from the state voter file provided by the California Secretary of State's Office. The final sample was weighted by age, gender, race/ethnicity and party registration.

Participants answered multiple choice questions, such as: How closely do you pay attention to the air quality in your area? If you hear or read that the air quality in your area is poor, do you restrict your activities or, if you have children, do you restrict their activities? Do you think more restrictions should be imposed on residents and businesses to improve air quality?

The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.9 percent.