Marek Warszawski

New air pollution plan ready for public scrutiny. This is no time to breathe easy

There is nothing more personal, or universal, than the air we breathe.

We all process oxygen into carbon dioxide individually (yes, I know that’s an oversimplification), but ensuring this basic life process doesn’t make us sick or subject us to long-term maladies like asthma or emphysema needs to be a collective effort.

That’s where you come in. Yes, you. You have to care. You have to be adamant about your basic human right to clean air.

For those of us living in the nation’s dirtiest air basin (it’s either the San Joaquin Valley or Los Angeles, depending on what form of pollution is measured), bad air is a way of life. We subject ourselves, and our children, to conditions that routinely fail to meet federal health standards, that force us into emergency rooms, keep us indoors and make us dependent on inhalers because … well, that’s just the way it is.

Except it doesn’t have to be. We have accepted our fate because we believe the problem of air pollution is too large, complex and intractable for anything to change. For example, we can’t alter the Valley’s topography to make it easier for the air pollution we produce, or gets blown in from the Bay Area, or created by semi trucks zooming up and down our freeways, to escape.

Nor, it seems, can we require agriculture and other industries to adopt healthier practices that don’t foul our air or damage our lungs, at least without heavy financial incentives. Why? Because “My job depends on ag” (or so say the bumper stickers), and any restrictions placed on ag burning, dairy farming and the like are viewed as damaging to the local economy.

These industries have such a stranglehold on our region that we’re not even allowed to discuss the negatives associated with them. Ask ex-Tulare mayor Carlton Jones about that. All the man did was voice an opinion, citing a scientific study, that agriculture has detrimental effects on the environment, and for that he was drummed out of office.

Against such a stifling backdrop, no wonder people feel powerless to speak up. Or get involved. Or believe anything will change.

I’m here to say that simply isn’t true. We can make the Valley a better, safer place to breathe. But only if enough people demand it.

Which brings us to the 2018 PM 2.5 Attainment Plan, a draft of which is scheduled to be released for public comment Friday afternoon on the Valley Air District website.

Already, I sense some of your eyes glazing over. I had a similar feeling Tuesday night while attending a community meeting that brought together board members and staff from the Valley Air District, California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency, plus clean-air advocates and industry representatives.

Listening to much of the discussion felt like walking into a foreign film, without subtitles, about 10 minutes before the closing credits. In other words, I was kind of lost.

Of course I know what PM 2.5s are – as should everyone living and breathing in this region. That’s the abbreviation given to particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, more than 100 times thinner than a human hair, which form as a result of burning fuel and chemical reactions (including wildfire smoke) that take place in the atmosphere.

Short-term exposure to PM 2.5s can cause irritation in the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, sneezing and wheezing. Prolonged exposure can result in asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and death.

Health and the air01
Dyami Hunt, 14, who has asthma and is recovering from walking pneumonia, wears a mask to filter the smokey air while spending time outdoors near his home in Fresno on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Guess which cities are ranked Nos. 1-3 in short-term particle pollution by the American Lung Association? Bakersfield is No. 1, followed by Visalia-Porterville-Hanford at No. 2 and Fresno-Madera at No. 3.

Yup, it’s a (not so) clean sweep.

The 2018 PM 2.5 Attainment Plan, the first version of which was rejected by CARB two years ago, is far too complicated to discuss in detail here. Suffice to say there are two primary components: reducing pollutants that come from mobile sources such as semi trucks and tractors, and reducing pollutants that come from point sources such as residential fireplaces, ag burning and commercial cooking.

In short, state officials are primarily responsible for the former. With the carrot of financial incentives (even though a funding source must still be secured), the aim is to “turn over” 33,000 trucks and 12,000 pieces of farm equipment into cleaner-burning versions.

Quite ambitious, to say the least.

Meanwhile, reducing point sources of pollution is left to the local air district. And based on what I heard Tuesday night and subsequently researched, they’re not doing enough.

Take wood-burning in residential fireplaces, our largest source of direct carbon pollution. Frankly, there is no reason residents of the nation’s dirtiest air basin should be burning wood in their fireplaces at anytime – unless it’s their only source of heat.

For some reason, the Valley Air District doesn’t agree. They’ve divided the region into “hot spots” that contain urban areas (Fresno, Clovis, Madera, Bakersfield, Visalia and Corcoran) where burning is restricted on most days. In places outside these hot spots, the restrictions are much looser.

One thing that stood out, to me and others, is that Visalia is included as a hot spot while the neighboring city of Tulare is not. Which doesn’t make much sense, until you realize there’s a permanent air monitoring station in Visalia and not in Tulare.

Discrepancies like this make it easy to jump to the conclusion that the Valley Air District is more concerned with passing emissions tests than actually cleaning our air. Spokeswoman Jaime Holt steadfastly denies this and gave me a list of reasons why it isn’t true.

Maybe so. But these are the kinds of questions that must be asked — and they’re the kinds of answers that deserve everyone’s scrutiny.

It’s easy to accept our region will always have poor air quality due to factors beyond our control and reasons that bolster our economy. I suspect the powers-that-be are thrilled so many Valley residents reach this conclusion, because it takes the heat off them.

I urge everyone to reject that notion and take genuine interest. Read the new PM 2.5 plan, ask questions, attend meetings and demand answers. That’s the only way the air we breathe will stop being detrimental to our health.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee