Special Reports

Clean air can happen

What if the San Joaquin Valley's goal was simply to clean the air as fast as possible?

What if there were less devotion to paperwork deadlines in the federal Clean Air Act, less obsession over penalties and more emphasis on healthy air?

Clean air might happen sooner, some say.

"We should be thinking outside the box," said Liza Bolaños, the Fresno-based coordinator for the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, a nonprofit activist group. "We've neglected possible solutions. There is a way to make this happen faster."

One radical approach: Rewrite federal law and aim it at pollution instead of paperwork, said Joel Schwartz, an expert who has written about the Valley's air problems.

Schwartz has long criticized federal air law, saying it is loaded with serious economic penalties for missing deadlines on bureaucratic busy work.

"But they give you extensions if you miss the deadline to clean up the air," said Schwartz, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. "It's absurd."

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District officials say they have no doubt the air could be cleaned up by 2020, probably sooner. But federal officials won't accept a plan that includes methods not rigorously proven.

They do not have the billions of dollars needed to prove reductions for their voluntary reduction strategies -- such as helping truckers buy new rigs or shifting cargo hauling from Valley freeways to coastline shipping corridors.

So they were forced either to extend the cleanup deadline or face economic sanctions.

The sanctions include higher fees for new or expanding businesses and withholding of up to $2 billion in federal road-building money. At some point, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would take over the Valley's ozone cleanup.

Even clean-air activists are reluctant to risk those consequences. But they say the district shouldn't be driven by a fear of sanctions that narrows the cleanup approach.

Activists and experts offer several ideas they think might quicken the pace of cleanup:

  • Discourage urban sprawl. City growth, and the traffic it causes, has not been directly confronted except through developer fees recently adopted by the air district.
  • Ban driving on the smoggiest days for the oldest, dirtiest-running vehicles -- including cars, trucks, buses, street sweepers, garbage trucks, farm tractors, construction land movers and mining equipment. But first, give the vehicle owners time and financial help to buy cleaner vehicles.
  • Stop and test out-of-state trucks on those no-drive days to see if they qualify to drive on the Valley's roads.
  • Find a way to catch the worst-polluting cars. The dirtiest 10% of cars emit 75% of avoidable pollution, yet the existing state Smog Check program lets the worst cars off the hook. Remote sensing is one technology that can catch such cars.
  • Develop mass transit, such as clean-fuel buses and high-speed rail.
  • Elect lawmakers who have the political will to push new air cleanup approaches. Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has been a clean-air champion in Sacramento. Will there be another to take his place when he leaves office in 2010?
  • Turn the region into a federal enterprise zone where businesses come to develop clean-air technology and fuels. Financial incentives could be given to attract such businesses. The cutting edge of solar, hydrogen, electric and other forms of clean energy should come to the Valley first.
  • Lobby for a new federal Clean Air Act that would allow timelines and consequences tailored to California's problems.
  • Enforce the state's own stringent air standards, which set a healthier standard than federal rules.
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