Open burning of almond trees. Photo by Tom Frantz

Smoke!

By Tom Frantz

We have suffered the effect of smoke on public health due to the wildfires this summer. It couldn’t be more obvious that serious health impairment comes as a result of breathing the fine particles in this type of soot. The horrendous air quality this summer and fall should bring home to every San Joaquin Valley resident the need to purposely avoid releasing smoke into our air. That goes from fireplace burning to open field agricultural burning.

Back in 2003, Valley air quality activists successfully lobbied Sacramento to pass SB705. This was a bill authored by State Senator Dean Florez of Shafter. It banned the practice of open burning in agricultural fields across the San Joaquin Valley but provided a seven-year phase in period. There were three critical deadlines in the bill.

  • In 2005, annual pruning material, field crop stubble and weed burning were prohibited.
  • In 2007, orchard removal burning was prohibited.
  • In 2010, all other burning was prohibited.

The only exception to the elimination of open burning was for diseased crops and only if local agricultural commissioners could prove the need with scientific-based information.

Unfortunately, loopholes concerning economic feasibility were inserted into the law. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District was given authority to enforce the ban and, surprise, every excuse in the world was given to not impose the deadlines of 2007 and 2010.

It is not a coincidence that Seyed Sadredin took over the air district around 2004 when the planning for the later deadlines was supposed to take place. Sadredin, now retired, was infamous for his deference to big polluters over the needs of the breathing public.

Today, we have reached a roadblock in the cleanup of our air necessary to meet federal PM2.5 health standards. We need emission reductions beyond the scope of current rules and well beyond the incentive funding available for projects where polluters are paid to reduce their emissions voluntarily.

Among other rule tightening, it is time to once and for all end open burning and fully apply the burning ban passed more than 17 years ago in Sacramento. The loopholes no longer hold water. There are plenty of economically feasible alternatives to do what the bill mistakenly called “eliminate the waste.”

Biomass power plants still exist, although at decreased capacity, and farmers who send them their ground-up trees must pay the full cost without the subsidies that existed in the past. These are highly polluting facilities and should no longer be subsidized. The only real alternative to burning is to grind the trees and recycle them into the soil. The carbon and nutrients in this biomass are too valuable to turn into ash.

Economically, the benefits of using this material to grow the next set of trees are significantly more than the costs. There is no excuse to burn except perhaps for the already-mentioned case of diseased material that the law allows.

Diseased rice stubble might be the only crop that actually needs burning. This crop is not common in the San Joaquin Valley, existing only near the Stockton area.

With almonds, there are a couple of rare soil-borne fungus diseases that could cause a few farmers to want to burn the trees. But grinding and removal of the trees to a biomass plant or a composting site accomplishes the same desired goal of not returning diseased wood to the soil.

To be honest, most of the roots of the trees remain in the soil with any kind of orchard removal. Where an uncontrollable soil disease is hurting crop production, not planting that particular crop for several years is probably the best solution.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) met in October to discuss the Valley’s progress in meeting the PM2.5 cleanup plan. The news they heard likely was not good, and real changes to the plan will probably be demanded.

The burning of agricultural waste, even on clean air days, still raises the level of PM2.5 at local monitors. This hurts the ability of the Valley to meet the annual PM2.5 standard, which is the toughest goal to reach. Also, a lot of burning ends up on days that are not clean because weather predictions are genuinely difficult.

No doubt the CARB will make some recommendations designed to tighten up the ag burning regulations in order to get significant and badly needed reductions in PM2.5. Crunch time will come in February when the CARB will meet to formally approve changes to an updated PM2.5 plan.

We demand that a nearly 100% ban on agricultural burning, mandated more than 17 years ago, finally be ordered by the CARB, which is within its authority. It is clear the air district will not do the right thing to protect the health of millions until they are given no other choice.

*****

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.

  • 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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