By Tom Frantz
In June of 2016, the United Nations Environmental Director, Ibrahim Thiaw, gave a speech detailing the effects of air pollution on the world’s population. He said, “If air pollution were a human then it would be the deadliest mass murderer in history as it claims 7 million lives every year.”
He went on to say, “In 2012, outdoor air pollution alone caused more than 500,000 premature deaths … [and] it cost $1.6 trillion to treat the health problems caused by [this] air pollution.” He also mentioned that environmental crime, such as illegal logging and illegal disposal of toxic wastes, is costing the world over $250 billion per year.
What about here in the San Joaquin Valley? How many people are dying prematurely because of our air pollution which averages the worst in the nation? What is it costing us? And, do we have environmental crime here in the San Joaquin Valley?
The last question is easy. There is plenty of environmental crime here in the valley negatively affecting air, land, soil, and other natural resources. Illegal burning of agricultural waste is common. Burning trash is still a regular sight at some rural residences and businesses. Illegal fireplace burning on no-burn days happens with immunity because it is impossible to detect with the convoluted air district rules allowing cleaner but still dirty wood stoves to burn on no-burn days.
There are often cases of illegal dumping in the valley as well. It was only a few years ago that a Long Beach area refinery dumped several hundred thousand tons of hazardous ash on Kern County land owned by the City of Oxnard. It took citizen reporting to expose this dump and force an expensive clean up. There is also the recent case of an oil company which was caught dumping fracking waste into an unlined sump [an agricultural pit used to store biodegradable run-off] in the middle of prime farmland.
Perhaps some of the biggest crimes have been the illegal wastewater disposal practices of oil companies. Dozens of oil waste sumps have been ordered closed this year by the Regional Water Board which claims they have just recently been given the staff to look for these illegal disposal sites. Wastewater injection wells have also been found to have permits which were approved illegally by both the state and EPA. In these cases, the wastewater is being injected into usable ground water.
There are also dirty diesel trucks which continue to operate without required pollution controls all over the valley. And, there are the pesticide sprays which continue to drift illegally into homes and school yards despite buffer zone rules which residents have fought hard to implement.
A lot of the problem is a lack of enforcement. For example, the biggest companies, technically, don’t have to break the law to illegally pollute our air. All they need to do is fill out a waiver or variance request to shut down their pollution controls for weeks or even months at a time while they do some fixing of something or other.
Our local air district rubber stamps these requests every month and every time. The air district also commits a probable criminal action against the public directly when they allow businesses to use 35-year-old emission reduction credits to mitigate new sources of pollution. EPA turns their back on these types of crimes.
Getting back to the cost of air pollution, it is understood that Eastern and Southern Europe have the worst environmental problems on the European continent. In our valley, the southern end is significantly more polluted than the north. We have air pollution levels causing around a thousand premature deaths annually and related health care costs that are conservatively measured at over $6 billion per year.
Every new study seems to find evidence which increases the health costs air pollution impose on society. A comprehensive study in 2008 calculated the health costs of air pollution, especially fine particulate matter, at over $1600 per person per year here in the San Joaquin Valley. Since then, our population has grown and fine particulate levels have worsened. That study looked mainly at cardiovascular illness, asthma, lost work days, and premature birth costs.
We have more recent information that a significant number of strokes are also caused by this pollution. A study released in England this year links our type of pollution to greater levels of mental illness in children. Given all this, we are certainly underestimating the total cost of our fine particulate pollution levels which the American Lung Association claims are the worst in the nation.
Without a doubt, air pollution is a mass murderer in the San Joaquin Valley. Ironically, local valley governments are estimated to spend $5 billion dollars per year on law enforcement but almost none of that money fights the biggest killer we all face every time we breathe.
Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental, and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www. calcleanair.org.