High-Speed Rail

Earth Log: Valley air pollution could halt road funds

The next air-quality crisis in the San Joaquin Valley is brewing around a precious $500 million in federal funds for building freeways and roads.

The money -- along with road-building jobs -- eventually could be frozen if the local air district cannot come up with a plan to clean up tiny bits of soot, diesel, moisture and chemicals called PM-2.5.

The Valley's PM-2.5 problem is one of the worst in the country. This wintertime pollution is more dangerous than warm-weather ozone. It triggers asthma and heart problems. Researchers have confirmed PM-2.5 causes early death.

Several years ago, federal leaders tightened the standard. By December, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District must produce a cleanup plan for this new standard.

District leaders worked many months on a plan that leaders thought would achieve the new standard. It was scheduled for an air district board vote in October.

But this summer leaders learned that traffic on new roads in the next few years will add more pollution than they anticipated.

The district is scrambling. Now the governing board is scheduled to vote in December -- the same month as the federal deadline for the plan.

A public workshop scheduled this week was postponed as the district continued fine-tuning pollution estimates from the road projects. A more precise accounting might lower the pollution estimates and make the plan work, district executive director Seyed Sadredin said.

"We can no longer use ballpark estimates," he said. "We need to make sure all the projects have been evaluated with the most up-to-date emission models."

If the district cannot meet the federal deadline in December, it will have 18 months to come up with an acceptable plan. Failure to do so will result in federal sanctions -- the biggest being a temporary freeze on the $500 million in federal funding.

Check for updates and workshops in the next several weeks on the district's website at valleyair.org/Air_Quality_Plans/PM_Plans.htm.

As a side note, I mentioned a few weeks ago one of the bigger features of the plan. It's an increase in wood-burning bans.

The district probably will propose a stricter threshold for ordering the bans -- meaning Fresno, Bakersfield and other larger cities might see twice as many.

If that proposal becomes part of the plan, the additional wood-burning bans would not begin until 2017 or 2018, Sadredin said.

Reader comments from my blog:

Transportation funding is a straw man argument. It's false to assert that these monies are at real risk; such sanctions have occurred only twice ever and then it was very briefly after years of litigation. It's being used by the Valley Air Board as a fearmongering technique to whip up anti-EPA and anti-Clean Air Act sentiment. At the most recent air board meeting, all county transportation planners were directed by the gentleman quoted above to use "creative accounting" to lower their current estimates of air pollution from on-road vehicles or face this false threat of lost federal funds. The Valley Air Board member are busily pointing fingers at everyone but themselves.

-- Kevin Hall

Wow! We want clean air, need road improvements, and are dependent upon federal funding. Because valley air is inherently less pristine than we wish, we start every effort at a disadvantage.

-- b2burns