Clearing the Air: Not Only Carmakers Cheating on Emissions, Local Industry Causes Suffering for Thousands

By Tom Frantz

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Air District) supposedly had no clue that a local factory, right under its nose in Fresno County, was polluting the air at many times the permitted rate for several years in violation of the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “told” them about it after a federal investigation uncovered the ugly facts.

Guardian Industries operates a glass factory in Kingsburg. Making glass is an energy-intensive business involving boilers and furnaces that melt and form the raw material into windows and fiberglass insulation products.

Glass factories in the San Joaquin Valley are the top stationary sources of air pollution. There are around five of them, and they emit as much as 3% of local NOx and SOx emissions. NOx and SOx pollution are what the Air District blames for most of our failure to meet Clean Air Act health standards. Huge power plants in the Valley are much cleaner than these glass factories. For example, the 1100 MW La Paloma plant in Kern County emits only half as much pollution as the Gallo Glass Company, which makes wine bottles in Modesto.

Because glass factories pollute so much, the EPA launched an investigation into their operations nationwide. They found that Guardian Industries in Kingsburg and six of its other factories across the United States were cheating. In Kingsburg, Guardian had failed to install and operate catalytic converters. These are the devices that have virtually eliminated air pollution from newer cars.

Apparently, the Air District had no clue that Guardian was breaking the law. But it should have known that factory inside out. According to Air District records, Guardian requested and received permission to pollute Valley air excessively on at least 12 occasions for weeks at a time over the past 15 years. Guardian, by the way, is owned by the Koch brothers. It should not be a surprise for low-income residents and people of color in the San Joaquin Valley to find out they have been dumped on yet again by wealthy, White, conservative and law-breaking people.

Without telling anyone the facts, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has reached a settlement with Guardian over its transgressions and Guardian must now install proper equipment.

The settlement documents claim that this action will result in the reduction of 6,400 tons of NOx and 550 tons of SOx nationwide per year from seven different factories. This could mean three tons of NOx fewer daily emissions in the Kingsburg area, which will significantly lower both ozone and fine particulate levels. This also means that Guardian was feasibly responsible for millions of dollars in health damages to residents of the southern San Joaquin Valley over a period of many years.

Because Guardian damaged the health of local residents significantly, the DOJ has required it to pay the Air District $150,000 to subsidize a fireplace replacement program. That means Guardian will help remove a small fraction of the pollution it illegally emitted. The fireplace removal program, by the way, is inefficient in terms of pollution decreases versus cost but popular with the Air District for public relations purposes.

In conclusion, Guardian is not paying anything close to the true cost of the damage it has done to the health of local residents. The small fine it is paying will not be used well either. If there was really justice, Guardian should be paying at least $5 million and that money should be going to programs that reduce significant amounts of pollution such as agricultural tractor replacement incentives or electric vehicle purchase incentives, especially for low-income people. At least the EPA is trying to protect the health of Valley residents. Our local Air District is another matter.

*****

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 improve the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.

  • 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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