Has the Air District Changed Its Stripes?

Has the Air District Changed Its Stripes?
Lamont area oil refinery. Photo by Tom Frantz

By Tom Frantz

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, behind the façade of a public health agency, has forever been in the back pocket of local polluting industries such as agriculture and oil. But with AB 617 legislation, they were forced this past year to sit down regularly with local residents to devise specific pollution-monitoring plans and local emission-reduction projects. After initial resistance, they eventually included some community ideas in formal plans.

Does this positive interaction with residents represent a fundamental change in the air district approach to protecting public health? Not in my opinion. Here are a few recent examples showing that nothing has changed and that the air district remains compromised in its health mandates by the board’s ties to polluters.

During the winter months of November through February, the air district regulates when residents can burn their fireplaces. In March, they claimed that their actions had resulted in the cleanest winter season on record. That statement became the headline in local newspapers that often print air district press releases verbatim.

Now it’s true that January and February were the cleanest on record for particulate matter. There were few multi-day episodes of stagnant air where pollution can build up to unsafe levels.

But last November had some of the worst days ever recorded. There were an unheard of eight violations of the 24-hour PM10 (particulate matter) health standard set back in 1987. There had been zero November violations of this standard between 2003 and 2017. In addition, there were seven violations of the 8-hour ozone standard in November. The total ozone violations during the previous five Novembers was three. 

In other words, this past November was one of the worst winter months ever recorded for air pollution. Headlines about the cleanest winter season on record were clearly misleading but typical of air district propaganda over the past 20 years.

In another area, the air district board has formally endorsed their annual wish list (legislative platform) for industry favorable changes to the Clean Air Act. They have told Congress they want the elimination of federal sanctions for any Valley failure to attain clean air health standards by specified deadlines.

They also want the requirement for contingency measures for failure to meet a deadline removed. They want periods of drought, high temperatures and sustained stagnant air to qualify as exceptional events so that violations of air quality standards during those times will not count against clean air attainment demonstrations.

In other words, they do not wish to be forced to clean up our air when they arbitrarily determine it is impossible. They have been on this campaign to undermine Clean Air Act protections for several years.

A third example showing no change in the air district’s shape or color happened recently. They wrote a state-mandated refinery monitoring rule that basically exempted all Valley oil refineries. Local residents who actually live close to a refinery in Lamont have sued the air district to force it to follow the law.

The air district response was typical of their ongoing disdain for the opinion of the local citizenry. “The Air District intends to defend against this frivolous lawsuit” was their quote in the newspaper.

Finally, the air district is currently silent about all the clean air the world (and the Valley) is experiencing with the current pandemic-induced economic shutdown. Hopefully, the air district is studying this event for guidance in making our air cleaner in the future. But don’t be surprised if they look for a way to take some credit for the cleanest March and April on record. 


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.



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