By Tom Frantz
This column has detailed the lack of integrity at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district) for a long time. Kevin Hall wrote about illegal and insufficient air district cleanup plans and cronyism with developers nearly 20 years ago. I have attempted to continue the tradition since 2013.
Lobbyists for developers, the oil industry and agriculture have guided the air district behind closed doors since its formation in 1993. It has been a perfect storm of dirty polluters, local good ol’ boy politicians and devious air district leadership, which has consistently done its best to prevent anyone but the general public from paying the health-related costs of our dirty air including the costs of cleaning it up.
For example, when the Valley failed to meet the one-hour ozone standard by the extended deadline in 2007, two things happened.
First, the federal Clean Air Act imposed an automatic annual fine of around $30 million on the biggest polluters in the Valley for the purpose of funding new air cleanup projects. The air district successfully shifted that fine to residents through increased DMV fees on their private vehicles even though those vehicles were less than 5% of the problem.
Second, the air district maneuvered successfully to take away the air monitor where the majority of the one-hour ozone violations were occurring. That was the Arvin Bear Mountain monitor, which had operated for 18 years and was considered the worst ozone site in the nation.
Within a few years, the air district declared compliance with the standard as a great public health victory. It gave credit to its publicity campaign asking the public not to idle their cars when picking up kids at school.
Nothing had changed for the big polluters. It didn’t seem to matter either that remaining monitors would mysteriously shut off for an hour or two at critical peak ozone times, and they would be calibrated so low they showed impossible negative ozone values during the cleanest part of the night.
Another deadly deal from the air district has been their consistent failure through the years to convince schools and the general public of the need for kids and elders to stay out of our frequently bad air. School sports have been postponed a few times through the years on really ugly air pollution days. But there have never been really effective health warnings about the dangers of kids playing outside and elders going for walks on the many days when the air is bad enough to harm your health but not so stinking ugly that everyone knows it.
Given how the air district is in the back pocket of polluters, this is not surprising. Repeated publicity about the physical harms of bad air would only cause the public to demand cleaner air. This public response has been successfully avoided by the air district with constant propaganda about how clean our air is becoming and few warnings to stay out of it.
The air district also has repeatedly and falsely blamed outside sources for our air pollution. Everything from wildfires, drought, heat, China, the Bay Area and trucks passing through the Valley take most of the blame. But the facts are that 90% of our pollution is homegrown. Even most of the trucks on I-5 have either picked up or delivered goods somewhere in the Valley.
The air district always claims to have the strictest rules in the nation and leave no stone unturned in the search for ways to clean our air. Yet lawsuits have repeatedly shown their cleanup plans to be inadequate, and they are clearly not doing everything possible to clean our air.
Enforcement of rules is not working either. One example: A Clean Air Act complaint was recently filed against CertainTeed LLC, which has a large, polluting glass factory in Chowchilla. In the complaint are detailed more than 9,000 violations of it air permit with the air district during the past five years.
Why the hell is the air district not enforcing its rules better than that? Maximum fines would go a long way toward solving this problem, but they are seldom imposed.
Finally, the air district releases an annual report to the public in which it brags about how well it is spending taxpayer money in cleaning up our air. Below is an excerpt from their most recent report for 2019–2020. There is no doubt that the air district spent the $250 million, but the claimed air pollution reductions must be looked at skeptically after the results of the CARB audit, which was recently released.
The audit showed significant overestimation of projects just like those in the accompanying photo. The air district seems to have a history of overestimating the benefits of projects that are a financial help to big polluters. Free money to agricultural interests for new equipment is popular.
One such program involving ag pumps was found in the audit to have air quality benefits overestimated by 30%. This is important because these inflated figures were used to show required progress to the Environmental Protection Association in cleaning our air.
The air district also underestimates the benefits of projects that would actually clean our air such as eliminating fireplace burning, eliminating open field burning, reducing ammonia emissions from dairies and converting natural gas use in buildings to electricity. For one reason or another, those types of projects are politically incorrect for the local air board.
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.