Valley Voices

When ‘go outside and play’ is deadly -- for everyone

The front page of The Bee on New Year’s Day featured a delightful photo of two children in silhouette swinging plastic swords out at Woodward Park. “One Final Joust in 2017” read the headline.

Kevin Hall Contributed

Page A2 had the less prominent but importantly related story, “Be Aware of The Air.”

I have long admired my hometown paper’s coverage and opinion of our region’s air-pollution crisis, and photographer John Walker’s great shot clearly belonged on the front page, so I raise the issue not as a criticism but as a warning to us all: we are not paying enough attention.

Ignoring the health risks of near-constant exposure to the smog choking our Valley and its seasonal spikes to Beijing-like levels is akin to removing the seat belts from your car. Those kids were playing outside in pollution so harmful every person of every age was supposed to stay indoors. All day long.

Because while those swords were not causing injury, flying past them like daggers were minute particles emitted from tailpipes, chimneys, smokestacks, mega-dairies, oil fields, and more.

These “fine particulates” easily bypass the body’s natural defenses and enter the bloodstream. Within seconds they have reached the heart and brain. Much of it is diesel exhaust so prevalent here that some of the world’s premiere researchers have been tracking its mutagenic effects on Fresno children’s DNA for more than a decade.

Those kids in the photo clearly come from a loving household. They were given great presents and taken to the park on a Sunday afternoon to play. I’m convinced the people responsible for their health would never deliberately allow harm to come their way. Yet there they were. Why?

Our crisis has several components: air pollution, a vulnerable population, and an ineffective government response from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Much discussion goes into the first two items, but it’s the third one that explains why: the district’s governing board and executive directors have never been committed to the task.

And that’s exactly where we are today and why we have been stuck here for a generation. After 18 years of observing the performance and institutional culture of the district and 17 years of litigation and advocacy, I have concluded our path to clean air starts with three steps:

1. A district director committed to public health

2. Third-party evaluation of the district’s public education program

3. Restructuring of the governing board

The district will soon have a new executive director, only the third since its inception in 1992.

Rather than conduct a nationwide search for the most experienced professional available, the board has selected an in-house, industry-backed choice. This gentleman will be responsible for warning us all when the air is unsafe to breathe. To do so, he must be willing to change the culture of this institution responsible for protecting more than 4 million lives.

For a spot check of public awareness, I stepped out into the purple-flagged, heavy afternoon smog of New Year’s Day. In less than 30 minutes, a gray-haired couple cycled past, a young man jogged down the road, two girls walked with their mom and grandmother, people played tennis.

Bluntly put, the district’s outreach is so weak it’s not even getting through to the white, affluent, college-educated business people and professionals in Old Fig Garden less than a mile from district headquarters in central Fresno. Millions have been spent on public education. It’s time for an impartial performance evaluation.

Lastly, there’s governance. The district’s 15-member board lacks balance.

Hobbled by a political structure designed to keep power in the hands of rural politicians, throughout its existence nearly all its members have been white men who, ideologically speaking, see their primary mission as protecting us from new government regulations rather than from unnecessary suffering and premature deaths.

This goal is furthered by widespread lack of awareness because an informed public would demand results.

There has never been a more important time for our health – and prospects for a stable climate – than now. The district is poised to begin receiving tens of millions of dollars annually in state cap-and- trade funds designated to reduce ground-level pollution and greenhouse gases. These resources are sorely needed, but we risk squandering this opportunity.

Given the Valley’s increasingly prominent role in California’s future, it is time to take this air district to a more sophisticated level of operations and principled leadership. Given our ongoing public health crisis and widespread ignorance of air pollution’s risks, it’s imperative.

Kevin Hall has lived in Fresno since 1971, where he works as an air quality advocate and community organizer.