By Tom Frantz
This winter will mark the end of one of the worst air quality episodes in the San Joaquin Valley for more than a dozen years. The past summer, fall and now the beginning of winter have been debilitating healthwise for people like farmworkers who work outside or residents living in low-income housing without air filtration systems.
Residents of the San Joaquin Valley who have suffered and/or died from Covid-19 have experienced a worse situation than other areas because of the effects of breathing polluted air.
Unfortunately, stagnant air has covered the valley floor like a lid on a pot for most of the summer and fall. This meteorological phenomenon is common here, but it seems to have lightened up in recent years.
The wildfire smoke was bad. But it was only part of the problem as pollution from trucks, dairies, factories, ag burning and oil fields dumped their plumes of waste into our lungs. Dangerous air quality this fall, since the fires have been extinguished, has persisted.
And let there be no doubt this pollution is created here in the valley. When it is not blown out by a low-pressure system, it compounds in our air killing the weakest among us including the unborn.
Our local air board will soon make its annual statement that this would have been the cleanest year on record except for the smoke. But they are wrong. The only way our air will be healthy to breathe is if we stop dumping pollutants into it.
The air board loves to say they have reduced pollution from stationary sources by 90%. But ask them to prove it and they go silent. They simply refuse to do what is needed to protect public health because these White men of Southern good ol’ boy roots with plantation attitudes don’t give a damn about social welfare. Our local government agencies represent a corrupt system greased by oil money and the crocodile tears of industrial agriculture and developers.
The air board tells us there can be no economic growth in the valley if new businesses are not allowed to create new pollution without penalty. Even huge polluters such as the oil industry, which has nowhere else to go, are given a nearly free ride in terms of being held accountable for their emissions. For example, through manipulation of data and illegal application of rules, they are allowed to use fake emission reduction credits to offset new pollution sources. This is a practice to which state and federal environmental agencies continue to turn a blind eye.
In 1992, I first began paying attention to how our local White male leaders dumped environmental shit on poor people living in the valley. I have no idea why it took so long to see this having already lived here with these racists for more than 40 years.
Today, we know what the problems are in terms of corrupt politicians and their relation to our contaminated air and water. It is simply a matter of time until the progressive elements in the valley take political control over our local government agencies, which means control of our air board along with all other decision-making bodies. That is where our hope lies.
Through the years writing this column, I have tried to list what is necessary to clean our air and who the bad actors are. There are no secret strategies. Ultimately, we will get clean air when we transform our economy to zero carbon in terms of energy use. Of course, that doesn’t mean local polluters get to continue offsetting their emissions by using false credits and imaginary mitigation projects.
Direct reductions must come from the sources of our pollution or those sources must disappear. Big polluters must do their part and the public as well.
Oil producers, if they still have a market in a few years, will have to make steam and power their pumps using solar energy. Glass will have to be melted using renewable electricity, not by burning fuel.
Methane will no longer be an energy source for heat in homes and buildings. Internal combustion engines will no longer drive our vehicles.
The technology is available for all of this and, not surprisingly, it all pays for itself in greater efficiency if the investment is made.
I will not be writing this column any longer. As I leave this valley that I have called home for more than 70 years, I am glad we know how to clean up the air. I am sad we do not yet have the political will to do so, but there is hope in the local nonprofits and progressive movements filled with local young people who are showing a strong interest in taking political power. The future is bright.
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.