By Tom Frantz
As the new year begins, residents of the San Joaquin Valley continue to gasp air permeated with pollution levels well above national and world health standards. During the winter, high atmospheric pressure episodes frequently stagnate our air. These conditions force a buildup of fine particulates in our air, designated PM2.5, which enter the bloodstream through the lungs and do damage to the body’s major organs. The effects are similar to those caused by smoking.
Heart and lung disease, pre-term birth, asthma attacks, and general lethargy are the known results of breathing this crap in our air. And, it is not just a wintertime problem. Most people have observed how soot and fine dust cover everything in the valley throughout the year. Some, who have not lived elsewhere, may think this gritty film is normal. Relief only comes during a couple dozen days per year when low-pressure storm events allow the wind to blow this pollution out of the valley or when we are really fortunate, some rain cleans the air for a few hours.
PM2.5 levels are measured in micrograms per cubic meter. There is a 24-hour health standard to prevent people from being exposed to the critical levels which cause immediate effects like choking, wheezing, and heart attacks. That level is 35 micrograms. There is also a standard that averages the entire year. This annual standard is 12 micrograms. Unfortunately, long-term exposure to fine particulates at even low levels does serious damage to the body through attrition. Sadly, progress in reducing our PM2.5 levels over the past ten years has stagnated.
Economic studies related to health damage and premature death show that in Kern and Fresno Counties alone, the cost of not meeting these PM2.5 health standards is over $2 billion per year. In Europe, the city of Paris recently experienced PM2.5 levels for several days which would be considered common in the San Joaquin Valley and well below our worst winter days. During this pollution episode, they warned people to stay indoors, provided free public transportation, and only allowed vehicles with odd or even license plates to be on the roads. In contrast, we don’t even cancel sporting events when this happens.
Our air district, in November, had their most recent plan for meeting PM2.5 health standards rejected by the California Air Resources Board. This rejection came after many concerned comments by local air quality advocates. For the first time in the history of the Clean Air Act, a worthless, hands-in-the-air, do-nothing plan, piously submitted by our political leaders, was not rubber stamped by CARB but sent back for further analysis and strengthening.
Board members Buddy Mendes, Steve Worthley, and others, had their cynical bluff called by Sacramento. CARB actually wants to know if Air District manager Seyed Sadredin’s sarcastic mantra of “no stone left unturned” means anything more than “no profit left behind”.
The sources of PM2.5 are well known. It is no mystery what needs to be done to lower our particulate levels. Take the almond harvest. This event lasts for 10 weeks every fall and emits more dust than any other valley activity. New harvesting technologies can reduce this dust 90% and the public must demand their implementation.
Then, there are the wood fires in homes. These could be stopped almost entirely by air board decree and strong enforcement. Also, biomass power plants are the largest single sources of PM2.5 in the valley. They are also expensive and inefficient. All subsidies keeping them alive must end. Agricultural biomass must be returned to the soil and forest biomass left in the forest.
CARB has been doing their part to reduce PM2.5 emissions from diesel trucks. But, these rules must be applied to farm engines as well. It would help to see some encouragement on this issue instead of apathy from our local air board.
About half of the PM2.5 in our air consists of the secondary particles formed by NOx, SOx and ammonia emissions. NOx and SOx from vehicles are mostly controlled by CARB and they are doing a good job. The air district must do their part by strengthening flare and boiler rules to further control these emissions. But, because there are more ammonia molecules in the air than NOx or SOx, the air district says ammonia controls would be inefficient. Alas, their reasoning is wrong because ammonia is easily and cheaply controlled. Ammonia can be quickly reduced to a point where further reductions become very effective.
CARB’s plans to reduce greenhouse gasses may represent a turning point in reducing PM2.5 in the San Joaquin Valley. Electrical production is slowly becoming cleaner with renewable energy replacing fossil fuel plants reducing both CO2 and NOx. There are also real synergies between reducing other climate-warming gasses and air pollution.
Reducing the methane from dairies is a good example of this synergy. By simply handling manure differently both methane and ammonia can be reduced. Dairies in California purposely release 75,000 tons of ammonia annually into the air as a waste product. Almond farmers spend 50 million dollars annually purchasing 50,000 tons of synthetic ammonia annually. Our local politicians are apparently too dumb to make this connection but CARB may help them because of their methane reduction mandates.
Burning almond trees and dead trees from the forest is similar. Incineration of this material pollutes our air with PM2.5 and adds to the CO2 and black carbon blanketing the earth. Why not use this material to enrich the soil and decrease dramatically both types of pollution?
Our society has seen fit to heavily tax cigarettes because of the related health damage. In contrast, our local air board members have seen fit to give valley polluters, who are directly harming our health, a free pass. Their cynicism promoting profits over health is criminal. Hopefully, Sacramento will help us out over the next few years.
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 improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www. calcleanair.org.