Other Opinions

State gambles with San Joaquin Valley’s path to clean air — and will likely lose

The city of Orange Cove sits in the smoggy Valley air on the morning of May 23, 2018.
The city of Orange Cove sits in the smoggy Valley air on the morning of May 23, 2018. Fresno Bee file

For those living and breathing in the San Joaquin Valley, air pollution has long been an unwelcome part of our daily lives — enveloping our communities and spoiling our nearby national parks. This is why, now more than ever, we cannot afford for agencies like the California Air Resources Board and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to come up short in cleaning the air.

A major culprit in this air pollution epidemic is fine particulate matter, commonly known as PM2.5. When inhaled, PM2.5 can enter deep into the lungs and even pass into the bloodstream, constricting or blocking blood flow to vital organs. This can cause a frightening array of health impacts, including asthma, heart attacks, stroke, heart and lung diseases, cancer and premature death.

Mark Rose Contributed National Parks Conservation Association

The San Joaquin Valley leads the nation in PM2.5 pollution, with Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia consistently ranked as the three most polluted cities in the country. Furthermore, this pollution often makes its way into the neighboring Sierra Nevada, where national parks like Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are among the most polluted parks in the nation.

Earlier this year, local clean air advocates sensed a turning point in our decades-long fight against air pollution when the Valley Air District and CARB unanimously approved a long overdue plan to reduce PM2.5 in the region. Unfortunately, rather than seeking to reduce the pollution primarily through regulations that would guarantee results, the agencies developed a plan that relies significantly on voluntary incentives to fund industries’ slow transition to cleaner technologies.

To achieve these incentive-based reductions, CARB and the Valley Air District made the risky bet that the state Legislature would appropriate roughly $5 billion in funds by 2025. Despite warnings by local communities and clean air advocates that betting on unappropriated funds was irresponsible and dangerous, the plan proceeded as is.

With the recent passage of the state budget, our warnings sadly came to fruition. Funding came in at $150-plus-million less than the first-year target of nearly $500 million dollars. This funding gap will likely only increase as the plan’s dependence on incentive funding skyrockets to over $800 million each year for the next five years. It’s obvious that CARB and the Valley Air District have already lost their bet. In doing so, San Joaquin Valley residents will continue to lose as they are stuck with a plan that will not meet basic federal health standards.

To fix this plan, we don’t just need more funding from the state. We need CARB to do far more to directly regulate emissions from mobile sources like heavy duty trucks. Moreover, we need to end the persistent foot-dragging of the Valley Air District. The district, which drafted large sections of the plan, has created numerous loopholes and exemptions that have allowed industries like oil and gas, dairy and agriculture to pollute for decades without proper public health safeguards. For instance, just four oil and gas companies account for nearly half of all PM2.5 emissions from stationary sources in the region. That is more direct PM2.5 than is produced by all aircraft, passenger vehicles and light and medium-duty trucks combined. Even beyond these large industrial polluters, there are far more sources of PM2.5 pollution in the Valley that could be addressed if CARB and the district decide once and for all put the health of communities over the power of special interests.

CARB and the Valley Air District do not currently have an backup option if their incentive-based reduction measures fail. With the PM2.5 plan coming up for review in front of the CARB board later this month, we strongly urge the agencies to voluntarily revise their PM2.5 plan to include new and stronger measures that will limit emissions from polluters who have escaped common sense regulations for far too long.

Mark Rose is the Sierra Nevada program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association

Editor’s note: The California Air Resources Board will meet Thursday in Sacramento starting at 9 a.m. The meeting can be viewed online at https://www.cal-span.org/.