Image by Tom Frantz

Clearing the Air: Wheezing and Choking in Malaga

 

By Tom Frantz

A trip down South Chestnut Ave, in Fresno, will take you past Malaga a half mile north of Highway 99. A little over 200 homes, a school, and a park make up this small, unincorporated community. It is surrounded by heavy industry including scrap yards and a glass factory. Busy truck routes, servicing factories, warehouses, and recycling centers, encircle these homes.

The people living here are probably exposed to the worst pollution levels in the San Joaquin Valley but there is no air monitor nearby. If you drive north from Malaga, about 15 miles through the city, you eventually reach the wealthy developments near the San Joaquin River. The biggest source of pollution facing them is the smoke from their neighbors’ barbecues and the smell of chlorine from backyard swimming pools. Guess which area enjoys a life expectancy about 20 years longer?

The people living here are probably exposed to the worst pollution levels in the San Joaquin Valley but there is no air monitor nearby. If you drive north from Malaga, about 15 miles through the city, you eventually reach the wealthy developments near the San Joaquin River. The biggest source of pollution facing them is the smoke from their neighbors’ barbecues and the smell of chlorine from backyard swimming pools. Guess which area enjoys a life expectancy about 20 years longer?

PPG Industries is the glass factory less than half a mile away from Malaga and is the biggest stationary source of NOx emissions in Fresno County. NOx creates ozone in the summer months and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the winter. Even closer sits Rio Bravo Fresno, a biomass incinerator. Rio Bravo is the biggest stationary source of direct PM2.5 in the county. PM2.5 is the most health damaging form of air pollution. Fresno and Kern Counties rank worst in the nation for this pollutant. It causes nearly $3 billion dollars in associated health costs annually in these two counties alone.

Rio Bravo burns close to 200,000 tons of wood chips annually which is delivered by more than 9,000 individual truck trips. It is the most inefficient and polluting way to make electricity other than burning cow manure. It can only generate 25 MW at a time which would barely be enough to power the glass factory (PPG) next door if that factory converted their old gas boilers to much cleaner electric furnaces (that’s another issue).

A typical natural gas power plant is 10 to 30 times larger and many times cleaner than any of the biomass incinerators in the valley. Let’s compare briefly the 750 MW Pastoria Energy power plant in Kern County with Rio Bravo Fresno. Published figures from government agencies, such as the California Air Resources Board and the Energy Information Administration, show that in 2014 Rio Bravo emitted 25 times more NOx and 45 times more PM2.5 per unit of electrical production than Pastoria. Although Pastoria generated 25 times more electricity in total, they both emitted about the same amount of NOx and Rio Bravo emitted nearly twice as much PM2.5. It is hard to believe these published numbers!

In spite of these facts, Rio Bravo is labeled as a clean, renewable energy source because the fuel is from trees that may only take 200 years to regrow vs fossil fuel which is a million times older. Ironically, looking at the climate heating CO2 emissions, Rio Bravo put out 3.5 times more CO2 per unit of generation compared to Pastoria in 2014. No one in their right mind should think we can afford to be putting all this excess CO2 into the atmosphere to make electricity as we rapidly approach the almost certain global warming tipping point of total disaster.

What is also not being counted is the fact that this biomass being removed from the forest is removing moisture, nutrients, and carbon that the forest needs for future growth and is essential to maintain the current level of carbon sequestration in the forest soil. Solar panels provide clean, renewable energy, not biomass incinerators! Dead trees in the forest do not present an increased fire hazard as well.

What is also not being counted is the fact that this biomass being removed from the forest is removing moisture, nutrients, and carbon that the forest needs for future growth and is essential to maintain the current level of carbon sequestration in the forest soil. Solar panels provide clean, renewable energy, not biomass incinerators! Dead trees in the forest do not present an increased fire hazard as well.

A couple years back the manager of Rio Bravo said he would have to shut down soon. The power companies would not renew his contracts at a price where he could stay in business. This was because they could buy solar and wind energy much cheaper.

Unfortunately, Governor Brown declared an emergency in 2015 because of dead trees in the forest and said they must be removed for renewable energy production and to reduce fire hazards. SB 859 was subsequently passed last year that required power companies to buy biomass power for five more years. These purchases would be paid with higher electrical rates to consumers approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

At least 50 percent of the biomass had to come from the Sierra forests. The rest could continue to come from urban landfills and almond orchards (these other sources should recycle, not burn). So, instead of this huge local pollution source shutting down they got a new lease on life from Sacramento politicians.

In conclusion, we are paying higher rates for electricity today so that thousands of trucks per year can remove ground up trees from the forest and deliver them for incineration on the valley floor thereby ruining the health of residents throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Also, some valley residents, like those living in Malaga, who can least afford this increase in electrical rates, will be the ones exposed to the worst of this pollution. We must demand justice and the right to breathe healthy air for everyone.

*****

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 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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