Clearing the Air: Why Is the Obvious So Difficult?

Clearing the Air: Why Is the Obvious So Difficult?
Autumnal equinox sunset and valley dust. Photo by Tom Frantz

By Tom Frantz

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is not doing its job. It refuses to take serious its chief function as a health agency protecting the breathing public. It constantly spouts off about “no stone left unturned” in the search for measures to clean our air. Yet, the air district continually fails to adopt any of the practical measures clean air advocates suggest. Instead, the board listens only to the big polluting industries that cry they can’t afford to decrease their emissions any further.

Take the currently proposed PM2.5 (fine particulate) plan. The air district claims it is doing everything possible for the stationary sources under its control. But the problem with the air district’s proposals is that they contain nothing new or significant. They are simply expansions or variations of incentive programs dependent on huge amounts of highly uncertain tax money from the state.

These incentive programs include upgrading wood stoves, filtering soot from restaurant charbroilers, paying farmers to buy cleaner tractors and converting diesel-powered irrigation pumps to electricity. Incentive programs might be good for a couple of years to get early adoption of new technology, but these programs should end sometime and mandates should be put in place. Only then do we move significantly closer to the clean air we need to protect our health.

Below are some of the proposals requested by residents that the air district has so far refused to implement.

  • Allow no wood burning for home heating anywhere on the San Joaquin Valley floor when the air quality is predicted to be above 12 micrograms per cubic meter. This is the annual average health standard mandated by the Clean Air Act. We are not close to that level at the present time. In fact, no place in the nation has worse levels.
    We know that fireplace and wood stove smoke drifting into neighboring homes is as bad as secondhand cigarette smoke in a restaurant. Unfortunately, regarding restrictions on wood burning, one board member foolishly claimed he would never approve a rule that people would break. In other words, he is refusing to perform his duty as a member of a public health agency.
  • Raise the cost for permits allowing open field burning of agricultural biomass. Currently, this banned practice is allowed for growers claiming an economic hardship. But the cost for the permit is cheaper than other, far better, options such as recycling the biomass back into the soil. We actually had more open burning of biomass last year than 15 years ago when the law was passed to supposedly ban the act.
    Whole orchard recycling should be incentivized for a couple years. It is definitely the future for many reasons including sequestration of carbon into soils and recycling of nutrients.
  • Tighten up the rules for emission reduction credits. These credits are granted to polluting industries when they shut down polluting equipment voluntarily. The only problem is businesses are also granted these credits when they are forced to shut down for economic reasons. This happened with cotton gins and old coal burning power plants, both cases of a business that had outlived its useful life.
    Also, eliminate those emission credits that are more than 10 years old. Pollution reduced 10 years ago, and sometimes as much as 30 years ago, and traded for new pollution today, does not help us get cleaner air. Finally, quit allowing cheap, old credits for one type of pollution, such as SOx, to be traded for new pollution of another type such as directly emitted PM2.5.
  • Make full and proper use of the Indirect Source Rule whereby new traffic pollution from development is supposed to be mitigated. This rule was a great idea. The only problem is that the air district has not enforced the rule on many projects by pretending not to notice what was going on under its nose. That enforcement should be done retroactively and immediately. Also, the rule should be made tighter so that all new development-related pollution is mitigated, not just a small fraction as done presently.

More generally, advocates have often requested stricter rules on various activities such as oil field flaring or pollution from industrial dairies. The air district always refuses claiming that it already has the strictest rules in the nation for these large sources of pollution. That assertion is often not the case and nevertheless is not a valid excuse when the air district represents the region with the worst air quality in the nation.


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


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    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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