Tom Frantz

Clearing the Air: The Great False Air Alert of 2013

By Tom Frantz

Central Valley ozone sometimes reaches extreme health-endangering levels in late summer when school starts. These spikes in one-hour ozone levels have been part of the reason that Valley residents must pay an extra $29 million every year to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District through vehicle registration fees. This fine is because of the region’s continued failure to meet federal health standards for the air we breathe.

With that in mind, the Air District decided to call an Air Alert for Aug. 19–21, which coincided with the first three days of school in Fresno and Bakersfield. A press release, widely printed, asked for residents to carpool and refrain from idling when they picked up their kids at school.

It worked! The Air District announced success at the end of the Air Alert in a second press release on Aug. 22. Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the district, claimed that the public’s reduction in emissions during the three days had allowed the Valley to avoid a violation.

Now, let’s look at the facts. These one-hour ozone violations can occur anytime during the summer months between May and October. They are most common in July, August and September.

School happens to start in the last few weeks of August, and a lot of parents take their kids to and from school. But the emissions from cars are a relatively small part of the total ozone forming pollution on the Valley floor. Personal vehicles release less than 5% of the total ozone-forming emissions between Fresno and Kern counties.

It makes no sense that enough people will shut off their engines while waiting for their kids at 3 p.m. to make any measurable difference in actual ozone levels on any particular day. One hundred percent compliance with a no-idling rule at school sites would not decrease ozone levels even 1%.

As it turned out, maximum ozone levels during the three days were 25% below the health standard. People who did not idle their cars had nothing to do with that.

The Air District can predict next-day ozone levels within a few percentage points. The process is similar to making weather predictions. It is no secret that we have high ozone peaks when the weather is hot and there is a high pressure inversion layer holding pollution down on the Valley floor.

The Air District got the high temperatures right but ignored the fact there was a low pressure system off the coast intruding into the Valley and allowing slightly stronger breezes to lift our air and blow more of it away.

The conditions were not present for really high ozone levels during the three days. There was no scientific reason to call an Air Alert. It was all political propaganda.

The Air Board will never blame oil production, dirty power plants, the dairy industry and late summer harvest activity for violations of the one-hour ozone standard. Blaming the true sources of our summer pollution would force them to make these polluting industries pay their fair share of the fine and reduce more of their emissions.

Instead, they pass the blame onto an activity causing a small part of the ozone problem but spread out over the largest number of people. Blaming high ozone levels on people who drive their kids to school simply helps to justify why these same people have to pay the fine.

Two things were accomplished with this false Air Alert. First, it is a success story for the Air Board. It shows they can declare a serious problem and then solve the problem with the cooperation of the public. Second, the Air Board gets to reinforce the false idea that ordinary people instead of big polluting businesses are to blame for our air quality problems.

These politicians on the Air Board want to be seen doing a good job. It takes the pressure off the fact that our air pollution levels have stagnated in recent years and we are not any closer to meeting federal air quality standards than we were in 2006.

To reach these standards will take much more serious action than suggesting that people not idle their cars at schools. The Air Board is perpetually misleading the public about the nature of our pollution problems.

Unfortunately, the tough actions needed against the real polluters in the Valley are going to have to come from outside agencies such as the California Air Resources Board and only after enough people demand it.

*****

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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