A sign in front of the California State Capitol building reads “Taking steps to conserve water during the drought.” Image by Kevin Cortopassi via

Clearing the Air: The Grand Deception | Drought and Air Quality

By Tom Frantz

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district), and the local Air Board that controls it, has a problem. The No. 1 air quality issue in the San Joaquin Valley is the level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) experienced by residents each winter. It devastates the health of thousands of Valley residents, and the past two winters have been the worst on record for this type of pollution. The federal deadlines for demonstrating compliance with Clean Air Act health standards for PM2.5 have passed. The cleanup plans approved by the Air Board several years ago have failed dramatically.

Now, the Air Board has no choice except to tighten all rules regulating the major polluting industries here in the Valley and go after all untouched sources. Yet, they do not want to do that because these same industries paid for their election and also pay local tax dollars. It is no surprise that the good ol’ boy network is alive and well in the San Joaquin Valley today. The region with the highest unemployment and poverty, worst air quality and health, and the lowest education levels in the United States, continues to be run politically by a greedy conglomerate of corporate agriculture, international oil businesses and their “poor” cousins, the big urban developers.

By not developing strict rules and proper, legal plans from the beginning, the Air Board ensured that clean air deadlines would never be met. Now that the chickens have come home to roost, they are throwing up their hands in despair and saying the rules are unfair. They cry that the economy of the Valley will suffer if polluting businesses move away or big polluting industries choose not to locate here because of tighter regulations.

They foolishly blame the drought for the bad air instead of their lousy policy decisions. They claim the clean air rules need to have exceptions for places like the Valley where it is more difficult to comply. In other words, they want the Valley to be treated like a third world country where corporate profits come first over human rights, the rule of law and common sense. The right of the masses to breathe clean healthy air and have safe water to drink is not in their bible.

Ironically, the Air Board has suggested recently that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should take over the rule making. That way, they, as local politicians, would not be to blame for taking profits away from big polluters. The EPA should call their bluff and do it. It is past time to take the health needs of the public out of the political arena.

From an economic perspective, the Valley has more to gain from cleaning our air than we could ever lose from a few big polluters leaving the area for cleaner pastures. The majority of businesses in the Valley are not big pollution sources. The few that do pollute on a large scale do not belong here if they refuse to clean up their act. The economic health-related cost to the Valley of not meeting the federal air standard for fine particulate matter is around $6 billion per year.

Doing what is necessary for Valley residents to breathe healthy air will more than make up for the loss of a couple of big glass factories, continued dirty methods of oil extraction, the closing of a few old power plants and a change in the way factory dairies dispose of their waste. The biggest single polluters in the Valley are internationally registered companies like Chevron or PPG or Covantaowned by stockholders who don’t live here.

Recent air district propaganda is that the drought has made our fine particulate levels worse, and it has been this unexpected and unfortunate event that has forced the Valley out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. Nothing is further from the truth.

The air district claims that a drought-related increase in forest fires and the increased use of diesel engines for groundwater pumping are making our air quality worse. This might be slightly true in the summer and lead to fractionally higher levels of ozone pollution. However, the problem we are discussing is the level of fine particulates in our air, which peaks during December and January. This is not when there are forest fires and heavy irrigation of crops. If anything, any drought-related lack of moisture in the air should have eased our fine particulate levels, which form and hang about in cool moist air.

The truth is that all of our PM2.5 pollution is produced locally and it builds up in our air during periods of high pressure in the atmosphere. These episodes are common every winter, with variations of course not related to the drought. How much fog we get in any particular winter is not correlated with drought but matches up with higher levels of pollution.

Historically, we have had many winters similar to the last two when the air turns hazy for several weeks at a time and the sun becomes a stranger. PM2.5 levels have been measured consistently only since around 2000. Weather patterns similar to last year, with and without drought conditions in the Sierras, are common every decade.

The majority of the PM2.5 in our winter air forms when nitrogen oxides (NOx) from fuel combustion react with ammonia and sulfur gases all while certain volatile organic compounds also oxidize. These secondary gases mix and coagulate on drops of moisture and hang in the air on cool moist days, especially during episodes of fog. The direct soot from diesel exhaust, power plants burning dirty fuels and fireplaces in urban areas is added to the mix. This happens on the Valley floor in the winter with or without lots of snow falling in the mountains.

In terms of health, these fine particles invade the body through the lungs and do extensive damage to the cardiovascular system, brain and even to cell formation. Premature death and premature birth are two of the many serious health effects from this type of pollution. Data show the San Joaquin Valley leads the state and nation in these two tragic areas.

Unfortunately, air district propaganda usually works because it is supposed to be a trustworthy public health agency. So, when it claims the drought has caused worse air quality than normal, people believe it and don’t look at the facts.

Even the American Lung Association (ALA) repeated this claim by the air district that the drought has worsened the air quality in the San Joaquin Valley. They did this in their much respected State of the Air report for 2015, which showed worsening air quality in the San Joaquin Valley for the years 20112013. This statement by the ALA was followed by many press reports quoting its statement about the drought’s negative influence on air quality.

In the end, neither lies nor the truth will clean up our air and ease the suffering of thousands of Valley residents. One thing is for sure, there is no point in the general public believing anything the air district says ever again.

*****

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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