Marek Warszawski

Does new air pollution plan make Valley a safer place to live? Don’t hold your breath

Smog gets bad quickly in the San Joaquin Valley. Images taken just days apart show the dramatic shift

Sight of the Sierra Nevada from Tulare County all but disappeared within days at the end of January as the San Joaquin Valley floor became choked with soot and dust, creating air pollution ranking the worst in the nation.
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Sight of the Sierra Nevada from Tulare County all but disappeared within days at the end of January as the San Joaquin Valley floor became choked with soot and dust, creating air pollution ranking the worst in the nation.

At the start of last week’s California Air Resources Board meeting at the Grand 1401 in downtown Fresno, Alex Sherriffs encouraged his fellow board members to step out onto the 10th floor balcony and take in the majestic view.

Great idea, except for one tiny detail: The snow-capped Sierra Nevadas could barely be seen through the haze and smog — even though it had been only four days since the last storm.

Three hours later, the state air board unanimously approved a plan designed to help the Valley meet four federal health standards for fine particulate matter – called PM2.5s – generated by cars and trucks, industrial equipment, wood burning and dust.

Even those who don’t have watery eyes, a constant runny nose, asthma or bronchitis are affected by our region’s bad air. A recent University of Chicago study found the average Fresnan would live a year longer if the air they breathed met pollution standards.

For just about everyone reading this, only one question truly matters: Will the new attainment plan make the Valley a healthier place to live?

Yes, but only in theory.

There are two reasons for my hedge. One is because the plan’s success hinges on $5 billion worth of incentives, most of which we’ll have to beg and plead for. Another is that the Valley’s biggest producers of PM2.5s – oil and gas refineries, agricultural burning and dairy farms – aren’t being required to clean up their act.

Chronic polluters: Chevron, for example

According to the Valley Air District’s own data, Chevron is by far the largest producer of fine particulates in the entire eight-county region – and it’s not particularly close.

Yet Chevron, which reported $4 billion in earnings during the third quarter of 2018, gets to keep on fouling our air, same as ever. Which should make anyone view the company’s recent $450,000 donation to Fresno State with a little side eye.

California Air Resources Board in January 2019 OK'd a clean air plan to reduce air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. Currently, air quality in the Valley is failing to meet four health-based standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Regulating pollution from stationary sources like oil and gas refineries, big ag and dairy cows is the responsibility of the Valley Air District, whose 14-member governing board is made up mostly of local politicians.

Does anyone believe politicians are eager to crack down on the same industries that write their largest campaign checks? Not me, and this plan illustrates that.

Instead, it goes after pollution sources from individuals and businesses that have the least political pull: residential wood-burning and commercial charbroiling.

As a result, there will be tighter regulations on when those of us living in Fresno, Clovis and other designated “hot spots” are permitted to use their wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, along with incentives to convert these devices into natural gas.

We all have a hand in problem

Which leads to another flaw in the plan: It relies on residents adhering to the no-burn rules even though there’s little to no enforcement or public education as to why it matters.

Whenever I write about air quality issues, some are quick to respond with falsehoods that most of the Valley’s pollution blows in from the Bay Area, Sacramento or even China.

Except there is no scientific evidence for this. In fact, the modeling shows that we create our own dirty air. This is especially true in winter. (In summer, ozone and smoke from forest fires can blow in from elsewhere.) Blaming someplace else for our pollution only serves to shift the onus of responsibility and perpetuate the feeling of helplessness.

Which is exactly what the polluters and most of our politicians want.

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Pacific Southwest Building looms out of the bad air, late Friday morning, Jan. 25, 2019, looking north on Elm Avenue. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

“Almost all of our particle pollution is homegrown,” said Genevieve Gale of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. “The perception that it’s blowing in from the Bay Area or China just isn’t factual.

“I think that gives room for hope that there’s opportunity for change. We can’t just sit here and say, ‘Oh, no. There’s no way to control China or wherever.’ No. It’s all here. So let’s roll up our sleeves and figure something out.”

Keeping pressure on pocketbooks

In this case, figuring something out means the government doling out about $5 billion in incentives intended to replace tens of thousands of old semi trucks, buses, ATVs, agricultural equipment, commercial charbroilers and wood-burning stoves with newer, cleaner-burning versions.

Sounds great, but here’s the rub: Only $1 billion has been set aside for this purpose, leaving $4 billion still up in the air.

In other words, we don’t have the money on hand to make real life replicate the computer modeling.

State air board chair Mary Nichols addressed these concerns by reminding everyone that the Legislature, not her public health agency, controls the purse strings. So it’ll be up to board members, Valley Air District staff, industry reps and clean-air advocates to make the case on our behalf in Sacramento when the time comes.

Sorry, but Nichols’ answer felt inadequate to my ears.

Holes and all, the new attainment plan represents a significant step forward. Let’s not lose sight of that. Any plan is better than no plan at all.

But will there come a time when asthma isn’t so common? Or when someone can step out onto a balcony in downtown Fresno and see the mountains on a regular basis?

Hope, but don’t hold your breath.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.


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