Biggest air quality hurdles yet to come

The Valley’s air was as clean this summer as it’s been in three decades. That’s cause for celebration — and also for sounding a cautionary note.

Violations of the federal standards for ozone, a precursor to smog, have fallen by about 50% since 2002. That’s very good news for all of us.

But we’re still the second most polluted air basin in the country. That’s a reminder that we aren’t anywhere near the point at which we can declare victory. The Valley’s air is better than it used to be. That’s not the same thing as saying that it’s good.

The worst air quality in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District this summer was found in Sequoia National Park. The park edged out Arvin, in Kern County. That’s a sad irony: The beautiful Sierra Nevada, where so many Valley residents seek respite from the turmoil and congestion of urban life, is now terribly polluted.

We have seen many new regulations imposed on every sort of activity in the Valley in the effort to clean the air. The ag industry has watched as its historic exemption from air quality rules was lifted and a whole host of new restrictions placed on farming activities. Businesses, manufacturers and development face tighter controls. Valley residents may no longer burn wood in their fireplaces anytime they want.

And there is more to come. We haven’t even begun to get serious about the biggest part of our air quality problems — the vehicles we drive. There are several reasons we will have a hard time making dents in emissions from cars, trucks, locomotives and other vehicles.

One is the fact that the Valley air district has very little power to regulate such emissions. Such authority lies at the state and federal levels. The state has been fairly aggressive in this area, notably with the initiative to reduce greenhouse gases. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency, under the Bush administration, has actively worked to delay or weaken clean air efforts.

It is currently, for instance, dragging its heels in granting California a waiver the state needs to implement Assembly Bill 32, the historic greenhouse gas legislation.

Another obstacle to reducing emissions from vehicles is cost. It will take money to get older, dirty cars — the so-called “gross polluters” — off our roads. Diesel trucks are the single largest source of polluting emissions, but addressing that problem will be particularly expensive.

We also need alternative forms of transportation if we’re to get people out of their cars. But our current transit systems are woefully inadequate. Given the love affair Americans have with their vehicles, it’s going to take a great deal more to make alternatives attractive. Transit systems must be cheap, efficient, clean and safe, or people will never use them in large numbers. And the price of gasoline will have to rise before people feel the need to curtail driving. That’s something we can probably count on.

Some of these concerns emerged at a two-day symposium held in Visalia last week by the Valley air district. High on the list of topics was diesel emissions and what to do about them. The problem with diesel is a microcosm of many of the larger issues we face.

Diesel engines produce an enormous amount of pollution. They are also marvels of durability. That’s good news for those who own them, bad news for those of us who must breathe their emissions. But diesel engines are also essential to the transportation and commerce we depend upon. Truckers typically can’t afford the high cost of retrofitting or replacement of older equipment. They’re going to need a great deal of help with those costs.

Gloria Arredondo-Malarchick, a registered nurse and member of the Kings County Asthma Coalition, told last week’s symposium that policymakers and the public must consider the cost of polluted air. “Hopefully, they realize the health costs and look at it as an investment rather than a burden.”That’s the key to public acceptance of all the steps we need to take to get cleaner air. The status quo is costly, and for some Valley residents, it’s deadly. More than 1,000 deaths are attributed to bad air in California each year, many of them right here. The Valley endures increased health costs in excess of $3 billion annually because of our dirty air.

It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap to clean up the Valley’s air. But the cost of failure will be even higher. So celebrate the good news about progress in the clean air effort. And gear up for even more work ahead. We must keep the pressure on our elected leaders, regulatory agencies and ourselves. Otherwise, we all lose.

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