Tom Frantz

Clearing the Air – March 2013: Scapegoating Our Air Quality Problem

By Tom Frantz

More than obesity and poverty, polluted air is shortening the lives of Central Valley residents. The marginal cost of our early deaths and degraded quality of life is around $6 billion per year.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (aka the air board) should be fired. To put it simply, the air board refuses to take responsibility for our continued failure to meet federal air quality standards.

Instead of saving lives with effective rulemaking, the air board makes excuses about unreasonable standards from the EPA or pollution from China. It claims helplessness because of the trucks passing through the Valley on I-5 or pollution drifting in from the Bay Area. When pressed to place some local blame, the air board goes after parents dropping their kids off at school.

Here are some facts:

  • About 90% of the air pollution between Fresno and Bakersfield is due to nitrous oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ammonia emissions produced locally. Local biomass incinerators burning landfill waste from San Francisco and Los Angeles pollute our air far more than the relatively fresh air that blows down the Valley floor from the Bay Area on summer afternoons.
  • The diesel emissions from trucks are related to local businesses for the most part. But air board members continually claim the opposite.
  • The San Joaquin Valley Interregional Goods Movement Plan of June 2012 lays out the situation clearly (www.sjvcogs.org/pdfs/2012/2012-06-14%20Task%204.pdf).
  • There are 500 million tons of goods moving annually through and around the valley. More than 90% is by truck and most of the rest by rail. Of the 460 million tons moved by truck, about 425 million tons are related to local business. That means only 8% of the tonnage crisscrossing the Valley on any given day is not being picked up or unloaded locally. Outside trucks polluting our air is a good sound bite but has little to do with reality.

The air board correctly blames mobile sources for 80% of total NOx emissions. Members lament the fact that they have no direct control over these mobile sources. But it takes a leap of faith to say people driving cars to work and school is a major source of these emissions. Mobile sources include trucks, tractors, forklifts, etc.

According to state inventory figures, private vehicles are well under 10% of mobile source NOx emissions in the southern half of the Valley. The machines used in the almond harvest have a far greater effect on air pollution during those fall “air alerts” than people idling their cars while dropping their kids off. Stationary sources of NOx from local power plants, oil refineries and factories are also significantly greater than private vehicles.

But who has to pay the $29 million fine for the Valley failure to meet the old one-hour ozone standard? Private vehicle owners pay the fine. The air board made that decision based not on who pollutes our air the most but on who contributes the most to the members’ campaign funds.

The air board makes its cleanup plans based on the theory that reductions of NOx from mobile sources will get most of the job done. The air board sits back and waits for the state to regulate those sources because it does not have the authority. Left out of the equation are the VOC and ammonia emissions from sources such as factory dairies that are under the air board’s control. These pollutants are a full 50% of the problem yet they are ignored under the false assumption that reducing them will not improve our air quality.

Finally, in an effort to avoid regulating milk factories the air board makes what is a criminal assumption that ultrafine particles such as ammonium nitrate are relatively harmless when they invade our lungs and enter our arteries. The air board downplays the fact that ammonium nitrate is between half and two-thirds of our wintertime pollution load in the south Valley.

This becomes criminal when the air board purposely ignores studies such as the one done in Los Angeles in 2010 that showed pregnant women exposed to ammonium nitrate suffered a significant increase in premature birth rates (www.ehjournal.net/content/10/1/89).

This corresponds directly to the fact that Fresno and Kern counties have premature birth rates 30% higher than the California average (www.kidsdata.org/data/topic/table/preterm_births.aspx).

The air board members are obstructionists to healthy living. The public deserves better and should remove them.

*****

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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