Valley Voices

Valley air-quality plan gets a do-over, but more can be done

The downtown Fresno skyline with heavy haze is seen in 2014.
The downtown Fresno skyline with heavy haze is seen in 2014. Fresno Bee file

A mother pulls her son out of soccer because he now has asthma, a retiree new to Fresno feels trapped indoors, both due to the Valley’s bad air.

These are just two stories that have been shared over the years with the agencies tasked to clean our air in the San Joaquin Valley. These stories have become all too common for decades; sadly a sort of numbness and complacency has taken over.

However on Oct. 20, for the first time, instead of hearing we’ve done all we could or feeling like air pollution is just a way of life for Valley residents, the California Air Resources Board decided to delay approval of the San Joaquin Valley Air District’s plan to clean up our wintertime pollution (PM 2.5) and take a closer look at what more can be done.

Air pollution in any region is highly political, requiring balancing the interests of industries, elected officials, along with public health. Luckily for Valley residents, the federal Clean Air Act and the dozens of local clean-air advocates who push for health protective air-quality policies protect them.

While the Valley has seen improvements in ozone over the last 10 years, PM 2.5 is another story, a story often not told. The Valley is home to the worst levels of PM 2.5 in the nation, the most harmful type of pollution. Tiny particles bypass our defenses, enter our lungs and bloodstream, and can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and a host of respiratory ailments.

ARB held its meeting in Fresno, and the local plan was the main act. This wasn’t the first time the Valley prepared a plan for PM 2.5, in fact several have been submitted to ARB only to be denied at the federal level, the EPA citing there is more the district could do, and validating recommendations from advocates.

Having seen plans pass through before, listening to residents and advocates, Air Resources Board Chair, Mary Nichols described the Valley meeting as déjà vu. This time around however, the chair and board members paused and decided to stop this cycle, opening a discussion on the options at hand.

This turn of events recognized air-quality advocates and community members present, asking for another opportunity to submit a strong plan that includes public input and new measures. In this episode, there were also new actors offering a balance to the discussion.

The state board includes two physicians, family practitioner Dr. Alex Sherriffs from Fowler, who also sits on the local board, and University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine Dr. John Balmes. Recent legislation (Assembly Bill 1288) provides two environmental justice community advocates.

Representing the Valley is former a former state senator from Shafter, Dean Florez, and for Southern California, nonprofit director Diane Takvorian from San Diego. Thanks to these critically important perspectives, raising community concerns, prioritizing public health, along with the unrelenting demands from advocates, there was a shift in process – a break in the norm.

There will be heated debates about what more the Valley can do, versus what more the state can do. This plan will require both to step up to the plate, along with the public, to leave no stone unturned. For decades, advocates have provided specific recommendations to reduce our air pollution.

From support and regulations to reduce pollution from open burning, fireplaces, restaurant char-broilers, dairies, local fleets and more. All opportunities for better air quality will be examined in this process.

This plan offers a crucial opportunity for everyone living in the Valley’s eight counties from San Joaquin to Kern, all are affected by this crisis and should not accept a lower quality of life simply by living here. Advocates applaud ARB and the district for creating this opportunity to bring everyone to the table and give the Valley a chance to see some progress for PM 2.5.

There’s plenty of misinformation related to our air pollution, where it comes from and what actually can be done about it. Over the next 90 days, the public is invited to participate in a series of workshops led by the California Air Resources Board to examine pollution sources, more ways to reduce pollution and ultimately to develop a new health protective plan that all can agree on.

This is an opportunity to break through the smokescreen and with the facts, the public and all the participating agencies, this Valley can plant seeds for clean air.

Dolores Weller is a Clovis resident and director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.