Plains LPG in Kern County, near Shafter, received multiple violation notices for excessive air pollution in 2017–18 but paid minimal fines. Photo by Tom Frantz

Clearing the Air: New Year’s Resolutions

By Tom Frantz

The new year is a time to make amends for past failures and determine better courses for the future. Our Valley air board should do so. What better action could there be than for the board to resolve to dramatically improve the health and life expectancy of millions of Valley residents. The following are some suggestions for 2019.

We don’t want to hear from the air board that 2018 was the best air quality on record. We don’t want to see continued manipulation of statistics that takes relatively good air quality numbers from the northern end of the Valley and uses them to hide misery and suffering in the south. We certainly don’t need constant lecturing that wildfires are ruining our air quality and that logging the nearby forests will cure everything. Bullshit!

The air board needs to stop preaching to us that large polluting industries have done all they can to reduce emissions. That chorus has been the air district mantra for at least the last dozen years. During that time we have seen little improvement in air quality in the southern half of the Valley. The simple fact is that local sources of pollution, such as glass factories, oil fields, biomass incinerators, wood stoves, factory dairies and others, all produce health damaging emissions that can and must be reduced a lot further.

Private and neighborhood air monitoring needs to be embraced by the air board. Right now, they are resistant to the idea that readily available and inexpensive air monitors can be of any use to the general public. They want their exclusive authority as the local air quality experts to remain unchallenged. They should, instead, be promoting these monitors in every neighborhood and helping the public understand the results.

The electrification of all forms of transportation needs to become a major priority for the air district. The millions in incentive funding going to agriculture needs to be phased out. The electrification of transportation in the Valley is a better way to spend this money. Agriculture has been coddled with voluntary incentive programs for long enough. They need to come under enforceable regulations requiring cleaner irrigation pumps and farming equipment. Public projects should take precedence over private giveaways when taxpayer money is being spent.

The entire emission reduction credit program should be scrapped and all current credits quickly discounted to zero. These credits have been a gift to the polluting oil industry and a few other polluting industries for far too long. Most of the oldest credits are questionable, such as those the Environmental Protection Agency never approved more than 30 years ago yet the air district has kept on the books and allowed for mitigation of new sources.

The air board also needs to get into their Trumpian minds that new regulations reducing air pollution are appropriate here in the Valley. In 2017, millions were still spent by the air district incentivizing the purchase of dirty wood-burning stoves with the unsubstantiated claim they are slightly cleaner than older wood-burning stoves. It is time to simply say that no burning will be allowed on the Valley floor anywhere and anytime. It is time to end this foolish cave-dwelling idea that people have to be free to burn wood inside their homes for warmth.

It is imperative that the air board either decide it will be an advocate for clean air in the San Joaquin Valley or step down en masse.

It should not be silent, as it has been, when there are proposals to burn dead trees from the forest next to low-income communities on the Valley floor.

It should not be silent, as it has been, when a city wants to approve polluting projects such as a large distribution centers, without any mitigation for the increased local traffic.

It should not be silent when the state proposes methane digesters at every large dairy in the Valley, which will increase polluting natural gas combustion and slow down the conversion of all combustion to clean renewable electricity.

Finally, the air board should commit to better enforcement and fewer approvals of variances. Variances are used when a polluting facility has a problem with their air pollution equipment and they request permission to pollute the air for a specified period of time without being fined for a violation.

The air board, instead, needs to maximize fines for rule violations and require large payments for any variance request. For example, Plains LPG in Shafter was given multiple notices of violation in 2017 and 2018. Some of these were for multiple violations over many days. The maximum fine for each violation can be up to $25,000 per day.

The total fines settled upon, in this situation, were a tiny fraction of that maximum.This was done under the pretense of “going easy” on Valley businesses because we have high unemployment and we don’t want to chase anyone away. The air board needs to understand that maximum fines are justified because people are dying from the pollution.

We need the attitude that non-polluting businesses are the future in the San Joaquin Valley. Any new business proposing to come here must pay an amount sufficient to reduce at least twice all of the new pollution they are bringing.

San Joaquin Valley Air Board 2019 is a good time for change.

*****

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 (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health 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.

  • 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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