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Clearing the Air: Air District Gets Caught

By Tom Frantz

Since its 1991 formation as the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Air District), this sham of a health agency has continuously shown allegiance to big polluters and scorn for the breathing public.

The Air District’s mantra is that big polluters should not be asked to reduce their emissions further. It claims, for example, that massive boilers for power plants, glass factories and steam generation have reduced emissions from the uncontrolled state by 80% and that is enough. The Air District likes to blame residents for high pollution episodes, but it fails to mention that personal cars have reduced their pollution by 99%.

Year after year, this agency wastes time and money on pseudo-scientific studies in order to avoid sanctions and fines arising from its repeated failure to meet federal clean air standards. For example, it has tried but failed for several years to prove that the dirty air in the summer is from pollution floating over the Pacific Ocean from Asia. The Air District also refuses to control volatile organic compound emissions from the oil industry and ammonia emissions from factory animal farms while convincing the public of the scientific falsehood that controls on these sources would be futile.

Recently, the Air District spent a large sum to prove that the air monitor, which disappeared in Arvin in 2011, was not important even though it repeatedly, for 20 years, recorded the worst ozone levels in the San Joaquin Valley. It even wasted money attempting to prove that an ozone violation in Fresno was due to a four-hour fire at a Richmond refinery three days earlier.

Callously, the Air District has concluded falsely, from irrelevant health studies, that some forms of fine particulate matter, which it doesn’t wish to regulate, are less dangerous than other forms, which it is not required to regulate. Fine particulate matter is one of our most debilitating forms of air pollution, and two-thirds of it is ammonium nitrate. The Air District absolutely refuses to regulate ammonia from factory dairies and puts much of the blame for fine particulates on diesel soot, which the state has to regulate.

Through the years, this sort of nonsense and willful neglect of public health has become second nature to the leadership at the Air District. Recently though, a more blatant disregard for the Federal Clean Air Act and the California Environmental Quality Act has come to light.

In early May of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looked closely at a permit the Air District had given to a new crude oil rail terminal in Kern County. This facility was built to unload crude oil from the Canadian Tar Sands in Alberta and from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. The EPA found that the Air District permit contained 10 violations of environmental rules designed to protect the public.

Technically, these violations are against the applicant but the Air District actively facilitated their commission. This crude oil terminal is designed to unload 200 tanker cars, each containing 30,000 gallons of crude, per day. So, two of these explosive trains per day can travel in and out of the facility.

There are a couple of main sources of pollution from this operation. One, the diesel engines of the locomotives pulling these heavy trains emit lots of particulate matter and NOx. Second, tanks at the facility emit thousands of pounds of volatile organic compounds. In other words, a lot of what makes our air bad is emitted by this business in large quantities.

The Air District knowingly committed two huge violations of Clean Air Act rules. First, it worked with the applicant to piecemeal the permit in order to not have to notify the public and to not perform an Environmental Impact Report. Second, it underestimated the emissions in order for the facility to not be classified as a major pollution source. This decreases the emission controls and reductions that would be required otherwise.

The Air District also did not require the facility to use Best Available Control Technology on their two 6-million gallon tanks, and it used incorrect emission factors for the proposed types of crude oil. The two tanks should have been required to be covered with geodesic domes to contain their emissions. Instead, they were allowed to simply have floating roofs that leak.

It is a shame that the Air District has gotten away with this type of permitting for many years and only got caught this one time. In fact, its immediate excuse was to say it did nothing different with this permit than with many others.

The residents of the Valley can thank the EPA for looking out for them this time around and slamming the Air District for both its disregard of the law and of the public trust. Hopefully, the EPA will give us more health protective acts of this nature in the future. The need for the EPA to dismantle the Air District and enforce the Clean Air Act on local polluters has never been demonstrated more clearly.

*****

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 improve the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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