Fresno and surrounding central San Joaquin Valley cities are at the top of a U.S. ranking for being the most polluted American cities, according to an annual report released Tuesday night by the American Lung Association.
California counties in the Valley region to receive a failing “F” grade in the State of the Air 2019 report include Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tulare.
Will Barrett, director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association in California, said during a Tuesday news conference that progress has been slower in the Valley than other parts of the state in addressing air pollution.
John Balmes, a UC San Francisco professor and member of the California Air Resources Board, said Valley residents need to keep San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board members’ “feet to the fire” to mitigate air pollution issues.
Jaime Holt, spokeswoman for the Valley air district, said the region has seen “significant improvement” in air quality over the past few years, “however, we agree that everyone needs to keep this issue top of mind.”
“We’ve worked very hard to make sure everyone in the Valley understands that this is a key issue,” Holt said.
Former Sen. Fran Pavley, the environmental policy director for the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, recalled attending an event at Fresno State when she was a student there alongside hundreds wearing gas masks to show concern about poor air quality. She said that concern continues today.
“Fresno is a wonderful place,” Pavley said, “but it takes all hands on deck to effect change.”
Soot, ozone readings
The annual State of the Air report, now in its 20th year, used data from 2015 to 2017, the most current quality-assured data available. During those years, the report reads, “more cities had high days of ozone and short-term particle pollution compared to 2014-2016 and many cities measured increased levels of year-round particle pollution.”
The report lists “Fresno-Madera-Hanford” as the most polluted for year-round particle pollution.
“This metro area now officially includes Kings County,” the report continues, “the county with the highest year-round levels of particle pollution in the nation. This ties the highest year-round levels ever for Kings County, and for the metro area.”
Particle pollution is often called soot, while ground level ozone is often called smog, explained Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association.
Bakersfield tops the list for unhealthy particle pollution days, and Los Angeles-Long Beach for unhealthy ozone days.
Other Valley cities to rank in the top five for either annual particle pollution, unhealthy particle pollution days, or unhealthy ozone days include Visalia and Sacramento-Roseville.
Balmes, who has been doing research in the Valley, talked about some of the region’s challenges. Beyond the Valley’s problematic topography – a bowl surrounded by mountain ranges that traps pollution in – he highlighted transportation-related pollution sources, including from major highways and railways. While people like to blame agriculture for the problem, he said, it’s “more of a climate change problem.”
Balmes said the Valley is “particularly vulnerable” to start with, and is now threatened further by increased wildfire danger and warmer temperatures.
Air quality is also affected by the region’s growing population. Balmes said many Valley residents drive older vehicles because they can’t afford newer ones that are better for the environment.
The report states that the federal administration is contributing to worsening air quality.
“Unfortunately, this Administration has focused on steps to roll back or create loopholes in core healthy air protections put in place to comply with the Clean Air Act. … Not only has this Administration targeted specific Clean Air Act safeguards for rollbacks, it has also sought to weaken the scientific review and undermine the basis for current and future protections.”
More than 4 in 10 Americans – approximately 43.3 percent of the population – live in counties that have unhealthy ozone and/or particle pollution, the report states, and more than 141 million people are exposed to unhealthy air.
The full report can be read online at Lung.org/sota.