Marek Warszawski

Fresno still ‘ground zero’ for terrible air. Why did Valley Air District blow off major hearing?

Clean car advocates and state leaders converge on Fresno for EPA hearing

Clean car advocates and state leaders gathered in Fresno on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 for an EPA hearing against the plan to revoke California's authority on vehicle pollution.
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Clean car advocates and state leaders gathered in Fresno on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 for an EPA hearing against the plan to revoke California's authority on vehicle pollution.

They came to Fresno from all over California and the West to make their voices heard in the struggle for clean air.

Air quality officials, politicians, doctors, activists, ordinary citizens — they all turned out for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public hearing to speak out against the Trump Administration’s proposed weakening of vehicle emissions regulations. Representatives of the auto industry gave the opposing view.

The Sept. 24 hearing in downtown Fresno was one of three held that week across the nation. Why Fresno? Because, in the words of California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, the San Joaquin Valley is “ground zero for the most stubbornly persistent violations of air standards.”

Yes, that’s the air we breathe every day.

The hearing lasted 12 hours. More than 125 people signed up to speak. Colleague Barbara Anderson procured a list, and I scanned the names looking for someone from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. You know, the folks who, according to their home page, are “committed to improving the health and quality of life for all Valley residents.”

But guess what? I couldn’t find Executive Director Samir Sheikh, or anyone else. A public hearing over a rollback of vehicle emissions standards was held in Fresno, and no one from the Valley Air District deemed it important enough to attend.

Don’t you find that a bit odd? I do.

Mary Nichols, Chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, speaks during the EPA/National Traffic Safety Administration hearing on the Trump Administration's proposed vehicle emissions standards on Monday morning, Sept. 24, 2018.

Wayne Nastri’s name was on the list of speakers. Nastri is executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, where the air is sometimes even dirtier than ours. His office is in Diamond Bar, 245 miles away, but still took the time and made the effort to get to Fresno.

So I called to find out why.

“Because we think this rollback would have a strong adverse effect on our ability to clean the air here in Southern California,” SCAQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said. “He’ll travel anywhere he feels is needed to get that message across loud and clear.”

Jack Broadbent, air pollution control officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, came from San Francisco to speak. Why did he feel it was important?

“The stakes are incredibly high,” replied Kristine Roselius, BAAQMD spokesperson. “A rollback of the standards would pump additional pollution into our community and obstruct our agency from carrying out its mission to protect Bay Area residents from air pollution.”

“It was very important that our voice be heard,” Roselius added.

Of course I contacted the Valley Air District, whose office is in central Fresno, to find out why no one from the bureaucracy entrusted with improving our health didn’t raise its voice, on our behalf.

Days passed and I received no reply from Sheikh. Eventually, spokeswoman Jaime Holt emailed back to say Sheikh was “not available this week” and that we might be able to speak Tuesday “but I will need to double check.”

As for the question of why no one from the Valley Air District attended the EPA hearings, Holt said, “We didn’t have top-level staff available to attend and submitted written comments.”

Sorry, but that’s not good enough. The executive director of the Valley Air District earns more than $300,000 in annual salary. With benefits, his pay exceeds $400,000. A good chunk is taxpayer money.

Surely, Sheikh could have found the time for such an important hearing, one held in his backyard. If not, he could have designated someone else. The air district website lists more than 100 employees.

JRW EPA DUNN
Linda Dunn, a Tesla owner from Clovis, chants as she joins other clean car advocates gather outside The Grand for the EPA/National Traffic Safety Administration hearing on the Trump Administration’s proposed vehicle emissions standards on Monday morning, Sept. 24, 2018. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

To be fair, I read the comments Sheikh submitted. (The language is so dense it took me a couple passes.) In essence, Sheikh seems to be saying, “We can’t meet the Clean Air Act as is, and mobile pollutants caused by vehicle emissions are state and federal responsibilities, not ours.”

One explanation for the absence could be that Valley Air District officials, as guided by the governing board, are quietly pleased at President Trump’s efforts to weaken our environmental laws, even if that means dirtier air for you and I. Why? Because the end result would take the heat off them.

Such is the contention of local environmental activist Kevin Hall.

“The last thing they’re going to do is send (Sheikh) into an EPA hearing and object to a rollback of regulations when that’s just what they’re looking for themselves,” Hall said. “They want to remove deadlines and penalties for air districts like ours that continue to fail. In other words, they want to legalize their 28 years of a failed process.”

I’m not going to double down on Hall’s comments, but it does make you think.

It is curious that the Valley Air District’s own legislative platform seeks to amend the Clean Air Act. The district’s critics would substitute the word “weaken.” Officials prefer “streamline” and “simplify.”

But that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s leave it here: Fresno hosted a major EPA hearing on vehicle emissions, one of three held across the nation, and our local air officials no-showed.

Which is definitely a bit odd.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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