Valley top spot for fine particle pollution … again!

In the United States, the region with the worst fine particulate matter pollution problem is – you guessed it – California’s San Joaquin Valley. Fine particles, though actually less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter in size, are nevertheless given the designation PM 2.5. These particles are roughly one-thirtieth the width of an average human hair.

In an article in The Fresno Bee, meanwhile, referenced is a San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district) daily PM 2.5 health standard of 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air. It is important to note this was tightened from the air district’s previous 24-hour fine particulate matter standard of 30. Also noted in the same Bee article is another number: 470, in this case referring to the number of wood-burning violations recorded for the winter 2014-’15 season when rules on wood-burning are in effect. This is a slight improvement over the prior winter’s 547 violations. Wood-burning rules are in effect in the Valley Nov. 1 through Feb. 28.

Meanwhile, from the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board’s “Air Quality and Meteorological Information (AQMIS2)” page, 49 is the number of days the Valley exceeded the 24-hour federal PM 2.5 health standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air this winter (30 in Jan. and Feb. 2015 and 19 in Nov. and Dec. 2014), this compared with the South Coast Air Basin’s 25 (20 in Jan. and Feb. 2015 and 5 in Nov. and Dec. 2014). The number of times the Valley exceeded the federal PM 2.5 standard last year (Nov. 1, 2013 through Feb. 28, 2014) was 71.

Fireplace_Burning[1]Add to this that during winter 2014-’15 up to this point in time, that is, more rain fell compared to last winter and there has been more Valley fog. Rain totals are recorded from Jul. 1 to Jun. 30. This may have contributed to the fewer number of exceedences this year compared to last.

There are other factors that could have come into play as well.

“Through February, nearly 3,000 wood-burning devices were registered with the District as meeting current [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] emission standards,” the air district in a Feb. 26, 2015 news release emphasized.

“This winter, as of Feb. 26, there were 36 days when wood-burning was not allowed for anyone in at least one county. Comparatively, last winter, there were a total of 376 curtailments throughout the air basin.”

The Valley county with the most curtailments or prohibitions in 2013-’14 was Fresno, with 59. The county with the fewest was Merced with 25, according to the air district in the release.

What was different also wood-burning-wise this season compared to last, for EPA-approved and air-district-registered wood-burning devices, as long as daily PM 2.5 levels were expected to be 65 micrograms per cubic meter or less, their use was allowed. Last year, if the threshold of 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air was expected to be exceeded, there was no wood-burning, with one exception, that being, if residents had no other way to heat their homes.

In no uncertain terms, the air district has made quite clear that, “[t]his season, there were fewer days during which the fine-particle level exceeded the federal health standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter. There was also more rain and less atmospheric stagnancy than last winter, although the statewide drought continues with associated air-quality effects.”

The air district, meanwhile, is discouraging residential wood-burning even though formal wood-burning restrictions aren’t in force any longer in the Valley effective as of Mar. 1st.

Look for temperatures later this week to return to the 70s. Expect with that levels of air-pollutant emissions to rise too.

Connecting the dots: Study links microscopic particles to heart disease, death

“A new study by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) demonstrates an association between long-term exposure to ultrafine particle air pollution and death from heart disease,” wrote the OEHHA in a Feb. 25, 2015 press release. “Ultrafine air pollution particles are tiny – about 0.1 micron in diameter or roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair. These particles are generated from gas and diesel motor vehicle engines, biomass burning and energy production.”

This first-of-its-kind study to look at what long-term ultrafine particle exposure impacts can have on people, involved other institutions working in conjunction with OEHHA, according to information presented in the release in question. The study itself was published online recently in the Environmental Health Perspectives scientific journal.

Human_respiratory_system-NIH[1] (340x226)“The study, titled ‘Long-term exposures to fine and ultrafine particles, species and sources: Results from the California Teachers Study Cohort,’ analyzed data from more than 100,000 middle-aged women whose health status was followed from 2000 through 2007. The findings, based on data from California teachers and administrators recruited from the State Teachers Retirement System, indicate that different types of tiny particles, including those formed from gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles, biomass burning and other combustion sources, were strongly associated with death from heart disease caused by blocked arteries.

“Key findings included:

  • “Ultrafine and ‘fine’ particles (2.5 microns in size, or about one-thirtieth that of a human hair) contributed to heart disease mortality.
  • “Certain constituents of ultrafine particles were strongly associated with death from heart attacks. These constituents included copper, iron, other metals, and elemental carbon (soot).
  • “For several constituents, the ultrafine particles were more strongly associated with death from heart attacks than those in the larger (but still tiny) fine particle size range.”

(Source: “Study Finds Long-Term Exposure to Ultrafine Particle Air Pollution Associated with Death from Heart Disease,” Press Release from the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Feb. 25, 2015,

That seems quite definitive, and would appear to be in stark contrast with what newspaper columnist Lois Henry wrote once in a Bakersfield Californian editorial where she explained: “I’ve done numerous stories on studies showing that PM2.5 isn’t killing Californians. And, in fact, a growing number of studies are showing PM2.5 has zero effect on premature deaths.”

As an aside, it’d be interesting learning what Ms. Henry’s views in this regard are now, almost a year-and-a-half hence.

For more detailed discussion, see: “Enforcing smog rules this way is bad for business” (the fourth and final article of the grouping) here and “Can PM 2.5 lead to early mortality?” here.

Image above: U.S. National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

With regulatory stability in alt.-fuels market 20% growth in 10 years possible

In my book “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow,” I made the following declaration: “There is no question the transportation field has evolved.” But, I also related: “Some may ask: Has it evolved enough? Others will undoubtedly want to know: is this all there is; the end of the road, so to speak? Or, is there something better?”

Hydrogen_station_pump[1]That stated somewhat differently: Is transportation all that it can be? My answer to that is a resounding “No.”

So, if transportation hasn’t completely evolved, how can it be improved upon or made better than what it is currently?

A clue: The sky’s the limit here folks.

Lately, much attention has been paid to fuels, so that’s probably as good a place to start as any and, the topic on the table today, is the Low Carbon Fuel Standard or LCFS and one relevant study in particular.

“California is capable of tripling its use of alternative fuels over the next 10 years, according to a new report by the fuels and energy consulting firm Promotum,” wrote the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in its Feb. 2, 2015 “Report: Pump Primed for Three-Fold Growth in Clean, Alternative Fuels by 2025: California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard Targets are Achievable and Will Drive Growth” press release. “The study examined the growth potential for cleaner fuels under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), a program requiring the oil industry to reduce the carbon intensity of fuels through the production and use of cleaner fuels.”

“The report’s findings show that the oil industry can meet the LCFS reduction target – a 10 percent decrease in carbon emissions by 2020 – through known, existing fuels and refinery technologies. This includes expanding the use of lower-carbon biodiesel and renewable diesel, biomethane, electricity, and ethanol, as well as improving the carbon-intensity of existing alternative fuels. It also found that existing oil refineries and crude oil production facilities could dramatically cut their carbon footprint by integrating renewable energy, utilizing innovative technologies, and investing in greater energy efficiency.”

Which raises my next point, and that is: If this is indeed doable, can and will it be done? There is a huge difference between making a declaration that a target of this nature can be met and actually meeting it.

NRDC expressed that regulatory stability – long term – is key. What’s more, it is this kind of stability that should encourage a more bullish alternative-fuels market, that market possibly supplying as much as 20 percent of transportation energy in California by 2025, three times that in 2011 when the Low-Carbon-Fuel-Standard program first got under way.

“The study analyzed different scenarios in which the program would encourage cleaner fuels by rewarding producers based on their environmental performance, measured in tons of carbon pollution reduced,” NRDC in the release expressed. “The strong, performance-based incentive provided by the LCFS – worth potentially more than a dollar per gallon for ultra-low carbon fuel producers of fuels such as ethanol made from agricultural waste or biodiesel made from recycled oils – will enable the market to expand and diversify.”

Dallas-Ft. Worth facing possible ‘Severe Ozone’ reclassification

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed moving the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas region into the severe category regarding the area’s non-attainment of the 1997 eight-hour, 84-parts-per-billion (ppb) standard of ozone.

“EPA has been coordinating closely with Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), North Central Texas Council of Governments, elected officials and statewide environmental organizations in preparation for today’s [Feb. 10, 2015] proposed action,” the EPA wrote in its “EPA Proposes to Move DFW Area into Severe Ozone Category” news release. “While DFW’s air quality has steadily improved as its population grows, the area missed a June 2013 deadline to attain the 1997 ozone standard. Because the area did not meet the deadline of June 15, 2013, to attain the 1997 standard, the Clean Air Act requires EPA to reclassify DFW as a severe nonattainment area.”

The first thing I’d be asking is why the DFW region has not met even this old ozone standard. In 2008, the standard was tightened to 75 ppb. The 75 ppb standard, itself even more stringent than the one preceding it, may still not be health protective enough. A decision regarding supplanting the newer standard with something tougher (purported to be between 65 and 70 ppb) is expected to be rendered no later than Oct. this year.

“EPA revised the 8-hour health-based standard for ozone in 2008. In 2013, EPA proposed for public comment guidelines for the revised standard, including plans to revoke the 1997 ozone standard for all purposes and to no longer reclassify areas under the old standard. However, this proposal still is not final,” wrote the EPA in the release.

As for how much air quality in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area has improved, the eight-hour average in 2005 was 98 ppb. Meanwhile, for the 2010 through 2014 period, the average is 81 ppb, but that’s a preliminary value, according to the EPA. “During that time, DFW has also been among the fastest-growing regions in the country.”

So, quick review: DFW air quality is steadily improving though area failed to meet 84-ppb ozone health standard as of June 15, 2013 deadline. Preliminarily, though, as I understand it, the standard is met with the 2010-2014 average being 81 ppb. EPA, apparently, is still required to declare DFW as a severe non-attainment area for ozone as per CAA dictate.

Owing to the improvement are federal, state and citizen efforts aimed at helping clean up area air. Federal efforts came in the form of measures to reduce engine emissions and make fuels cleaner; state emissions-reduction efforts were stationary sources sector-based; while the public did its part “during the ozone season” by keeping vehicles properly maintained, by putting off until evenings vehicle refueling and by “using public transport,” the EPA stressed.

Trinity Railway Express train, “The T” Bus, Intermodal Transportation Center, Ft. Worth
Trinity Railway Express train, “The T” Bus, Intermodal Transportation Center, Ft. Worth

Area traffic can at times be considerable, that with abundant horizontal residential development (sprawl, in other words), and warm temperatures makes the area ripe for ozone formation.

Adds the EPA: “In DFW, mobile sources such as cars and trucks are the biggest emitters of ozone ‘ingredients.’ Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma. Ground-level ozone contributes to the formation of smog, and can harm sensitive vegetation and ecosystems.”

Image above: W. R. Howell, Jr.

Rising atmospheric carbon could heighten ‘megadrought’ risk, study finds

If you remember (or even if you don’t) in “Climatological shift, cliff and other choice thoughts,” I insisted: “Whether one identifies oneself as a climate-change denier or climate-change believer there is no denying the climatological ‘cliff’ and ‘shift’ ideas.”

Elaborating farther, I explained, “There is no question … there exists in this existence the notion of ‘climatological cliff.’ It’s indisputable. And there is incontrovertible evidence that such was once overshot. Think ‘ice age.’ Not as drastic but still profound is the notion of ‘climatological shift.’ What this implies is meteorological change as in a remarked (sic) change in climatic conditions or patterns.”

So, when I found the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Feb. 12, 2015 “NASA Study Finds Carbon Emissions Could Dramatically Increase Risk of U.S. Megadroughts” news release, right away my curiosity was piqued.

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17[1]Throughout history there have been droughts. According to NASA, in North America between 1100 and 1300, so-called “medieval-period” droughts occurred. Separating those from what the U.S. Southwest is experiencing today is that in the case of the former, some dry periods lasted as long as half a century.

Ben Cook, a climate scientist at the space agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in addition to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at New York’s Columbia University, observed: “‘Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less,’” although in the decades to come, drought durations could dramatically lengthen.

Cook, who headed a team in a recent NASA study, expressed that between 2050 and 2099, the likelihood of a megadrought lasting decades in both the Central Plains and Southwest regions, is 80 percent if, throughout the 21st century, the increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions along current trajectories continue, that is, as I understand things. On the other hand, if, by 2050, the increase in GHGs is stemmed, Cook and study colleagues project the likelihood of megadrought to fall to north of 60 percent. Should either projection come to pass, what this could mean for the Central Plains and Southwest regions is nothing short of a significant reduction in the amount of precipitation and along with this heightened soil-moisture evaporation. Comparatively, at present, according to the study team leader, the likelihood of a drought lasting three decades or longer is 12 percent.

“The scientists analyzed a drought severity index and two soil moisture data sets from 17 climate models that were run for both emissions scenarios. The high emissions scenario projects the equivalent of an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 1,370 parts per million (ppm) by 2100, while the moderate emissions scenario projects the equivalent of 650 ppm by 2100,” NASA in the release continued.

Furthermore, side-by-side comparisons of megadroughts of the past with 21st century computer-model projections reveal “both the moderate and business-as-usual emissions scenarios are drier, and the risk of droughts lasting 30 years or longer increases significantly,” adds NASA in the release.

Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, meanwhile, is presently 400 ppm.

For more on the NASA study, go here.

Image above: NASA

Permitting of south Valley oil operation prompts lawsuit

In the Kern County community of Taft in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley stands a new crude-oil terminal and not all are happy about the site choice for this facility.

Bakersfield Crude Terminal
Bakersfield Crude Terminal

Relatedly, on Jan. 29, 2015, “[c]ommunity and environmental groups filed suit … over the expansion—orchestrated mostly in secret—of a crude oil operation in Kern County that could lead to a 1,000 percent increase in the amount of crude imported by rail into California each year,” reported Earthjustice in the “Groups Sue to Stop Daily 100-Car Train Deliveries of Toxic Crude Oil to Bakersfield Terminal: Coalition sues over illegal permitting of major crude-by-rail project in Central Valley,” press release. “The newly opened Bakersfield Crude Terminal in Taft, Calif., has the capacity to receive two 100-car unit trains a day of volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale formation as well as heavier, highly toxic tar sands.”

The reason for the aforementioned legal challenge, in no uncertain terms, is this: “Today’s lawsuit was filed against the San Joaquin [Valley] Air Pollution Control District for the piecemeal permitting process that allowed one of the largest crude oil operations in California to expand largely in secret, without environmental review of the risks posed by importing millions of gallons a day of toxic, explosive oil from North Dakota and Canada,” declared Earthjustice in the release.

Then there is the safety aspect associated with oil-by-rail movements.

Unit train of oil tank cars
Unit train of oil tank cars

In fact, just yesterday, Feb. 16, 2015, a 109-car freight train carrying Bakken North Dakota crude oil derailed in West Virginia. Explosions ensued and fire engulfed portions of the train forcing the evacuations of two small West Virginia towns located east of Charleston, the state’s capital. The train was en route from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to Yorktown, Virginia, reporter Curtis Tate, with McClatchy News Washington Bureau, reported. Also according to Tate, on the previous day, a train transporting Alberta tar-sands oil derailed and caught fire in northern Ontario, Canada, adding that similar such incidents had occurred in the recent past in Aliceville, Alabama, Casselton, North Dakota and in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. In the Lac-Megantic derailment, meanwhile, 47 people died and wiped out was the town’s business district.

Earthjustice in the press release further observed: “In addition to dramatically increasing the risk to communities along the rail route, facilities such as the Bakersfield Crude Terminal are major sources of volatile organic compound emissions—a precursor to ozone air pollution. Breathing ozone is hazardous to respiratory health, and the San Joaquin Valley is one of two air basins in the United States designated ‘extreme nonattainment’ for federal ozone standards. The degraded state of the San Joaquin Valley’s air results in more than a thousand premature deaths each year, and one in six Valley children is diagnosed with asthma.”

Images above: Elizabeth Forsyth, Earthjustice

Vehicle-produced NOx pollution in Germany on the rise

In this day and age with air-pollutant emissions in many parts of the world being at unprecedented levels and concentrations, getting much media attention because of this and other reasons, one would think a concerted effort to significantly reduce emissions from transportation would be advanced as a means to better safeguard health and improve quality of life. As it has to do with Germany in this regard, could more be done with respect to reducing nitrogen oxide and other harmful emissions within the motor-vehicle sector in that country?

In “German highway traffic exceeds EU air pollution threshold,” Daniel Tost, writing for EurActiv, wrote: “Nitrogen oxide, primarily originating from motor vehicle exhausts, is quickly becoming a top pollutant in Germany, according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA).”

“Data collected at over 500 monitoring stations indicates that, once again, the annual mean value of more than half of the monitoring stations near high-traffic roads exceeded the threshold of 40 µg per cubic metre (m3).”

Furthermore, according to Tost, in May this year, data from another 124 monitoring stations will be added. Due to technical issues, data from those additional monitoring stations could not be evaluated.

“‘To contain threshold exceedances in nitrogen oxide, it is vital that the new exhaust norm EURO 6 also lead to lower emissions in real traffic. So far, many automobile manufacturers were only able to guarantee this in the laboratory,’ said UBA president Maria Krautzberger,” Tost wrote citing Krautzberger.

Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is not the only pollutant of concern – there are others as well such as ozone (O3), a gas corrosive to delicate lung tissue.

“Although no ozone peaks were observed in the summer of 2014, there were target value exceedances in around 6% of all monitoring stations,” Tost continued. “But the maximum 8 hour mean ozone concentration should not exceed 120 µg/m3 on more than 25 days per calendar year.”

And, as for particulates, the air experiences some of the lowest levels, according to what Tost wrote. Even so, Krautzberger demurred, contending there is still risk to health.

“‘For particulates, there is no minimum effect threshold – health effects can also occur when the concentration levels of particulates is relatively low. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed this again,’” Tost offered, citing the UBA president once more.

So, is there anything that can be done to help bring about improvement in motor vehicle exhaust emissions?

Of nitrogen oxide, ozone and particulate emissions, with the pollutant NOx seemingly causing the greatest amount of concern, finding an appropriate engineering solution to significantly reduce or even eliminate NOx – not just in the lab but under real-world driving conditions as well – should be the remedy of choice.

Autobahn in the 1930s in Germany
Autobahn in the 1930s in Germany

Image above: U.S. Library of Congress

Of smog standards, vehicle certifications and trans-boundary drifts

Apparently, California’s entire San Joaquin Valley, consisting of eight counties in all, will only meet a new national 8-hour smog standard – the threshold still to be determined – if “most,” I repeat: “most” Valley-based vehicles are emissions-free. And, that would be in year 2035 at the earliest.

Think about the implications!

Hydrogen_vehicle[1]“The Valley will have to electrify or go to other alternative fuels for everything from tractors to trains, just to have a chance,” The Fresno Bee environmental reporter Mark Grossi in “New air standard for the Valley: Say goodbye to your gasoline-burning car” wrote.

Achieving a goal like that in 20 years’ time?! What do you think?

So, what is the standard we are talking about here?

Between 65 and 70 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone, according to Grossi. In 2014 in the Valley, the current federal 8-hour ozone health standard of 75 ppb (set in 2008), was exceeded 99 times, the most in the nation that year.

By adopting a tighter health standard, this could mean even more such Valley breaches in the years ahead. But, really what all this is about is protecting public health.

As mentioned in a previous post, environmental activists favor strengthening the standard. Meanwhile, within the commercial sector there seems to be an overarching belief that in adopting a more stringent standard, this could hurt business.

Smog certified

This conversation seems to come up every time my car is due for smog testing which, by the way, in the Golden State is every two years.

Vehicles being tested undergo a visual inspection looking at such things as computers, sensors, switches and wiring; Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR); catalyst; crankcase emission control; and other emission-related components and systems; and more. Then there is the “Emission Control Systems Functional Check Results” category. Listed on the print-out are three items:

  1. Liquid Fuel Leak Check
  2. Smoke Check
  3. OBDII

“OBDII” stands for “On-Board Diagnostics II.” On-Board Diagnostics was discussed in “California Smog Check Program gets upgrade with ‘STAR’.”

While I am happy to report my vehicle is within specifications, during the time my car was being tested, another vehicle owner was told that their vehicle unfortunately did not meet spec. due to the presence of excessive NOx or oxides of nitrogen gases.

The smog certification technician went on to explain that the vehicle was tested at two speeds: 15 and 25 miles per hour (as tested on a dynamometer). At 15 mph, NOx levels were over 1,000 and at 25 mph NOx levels exceeded 1,300. NOx is measured in parts per million. If I recall correctly, the testing technician concluded that for those high NOx emissions levels to exist, the combustion chamber temperature needed to be in excess of 2,500 degrees and I would presume that to be Fahrenheit.

This is the first time in all the times I took my vehicle in for testing where I learned that someone else’s vehicle did not pass. The next step naturally would be to try to determine why the vehicle in question’s combustion chamber was getting that hot and institute a fix.

The way the wind blows

Ask most folk living in California’s immense San Joaquin Valley what they like best about living there and the answer given more often than not is its proximity to the Pacific coast and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Like the Sierra, another mountain barrier, the Pacific Coast range separates California’s Central Coast region from the mid-state hinterlands. The Golden State’s Central Coast region is punctuated by moderate year-round temperatures and relatively clean air while the Central Valley, on the other hand, is often defined by its temperatures – hotter in the summer and colder in the winter – and air that is quite problematic as evidenced from the information presented above.

640px-California's_Central_ValleyIt’d be nice if the coast’s cleaner air made its way to the Valley. And, on rare occasion, it does. That happens when a good wind blows off the Pacific and moves inland to the state’s central interior.

Meanwhile, in “CATS: Wind turbines – An up-close-and-personal look,” I referenced the Altamont Pass region, the Altamont “… situated between the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley in the northern half of the state …” Well, it is through this very pass and others that Bay Area winds can blow into the Valley. So, in a sense, the Altamont is like a funnel.

What’s important in this regard isn’t how much Bay air flows in, rather what and how much is picked up and air-transported in; namely, the dirt, dust, debris and pollution that is sourced from the west side of the coastal-range divide. To this can be added air blown in from the Sacramento region to the Valley’s north. On this, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district) via its Web site, offers perspective.

According to posted air district information, 27 percent of the North San Joaquin Valley’s air pollutant emissions, 11 percent of the Central Valley’s air pollutant emissions and seven percent of the South Valley’s air pollutant emissions are attributable to air pollutant emissions leaving the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley.1

It is bad enough that the Valley produces its own pollution but to take on polluted air coming from elsewhere serves to make an already poor air condition worse. Combined Stockton (Hazelton Street), Tracy (Airport) and Modesto (14th Street) – all North Valley cities – exceeded the federal eight-hour ozone health standard on 22 days. This compares to Clovis N. Villa Avenue’s 56 in the Central Valley and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park’s 51 in the South Valley.

Overhead view of the San Francisco Bay Area as taken from space
Overhead view of the San Francisco Bay Area as taken from space

One must assume that only when wind is blowing out of the west and/or north, then and only then does the possibility exist that Bay Area and/or Sacramento area air, tainted or otherwise, would be carried into the Valley. That 27 percent of North Valley pollution is from Bay Area and Sacramento area sources would seem to indicate that the North Valley region is producing far less pollution than say what the Central and South Valley regions are generating. Meanwhile, Hazelton Street in Stockton, the Airport in Tracy, 14th Street in Modesto and S. Minaret Street in Turlock in 2014, respectively, recorded 2, 8, 12 and 30 breaches of the national 8-hour ozone standard. It is evident from this that North Valley air, in traveling north to south, gets noticeably more polluted.

Also, air being mobile in nature, this leads me to conclude that on windy days much of what is in the air in the North Valley also goes elsewhere.

On the other hand, when air in the Valley is stagnant – such as when winter fog is present or when high pressure over the Valley in the summer sets in resulting in an inversion layer being created and thereby keeping area air pollutants close to the ground – logic would have it that any pollution generated in both the Bay Area and Sacramento regions would stay in their respective areas.

Related to this, the air district notes, “The San Joaquin Valley Air Basin is approximately 250 miles long and is shaped like a narrow bowl. The sides and southern boundary of the ‘bowl’ are bordered by mountain ranges. The Valley’s weather conditions include frequent temperature inversions, long, hot summers, and stagnant, foggy winters all of which are conducive to the formation and retention of air pollutants.

“The bowl-shaped Valley collects and holds emissions caused by the activities of the Valley’s three million residents and their two million vehicles, as well as vehicles from other areas traveling on Highway 99 and Interstate 5. In addition, pollutants are also transported into the Valley from the Bay Area and the Sacramento Valley. These characteristics cause the San Joaquin Valley to be unusually susceptible to significant air pollution problems.”2


  1. San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, “Frequently Asked Questions” page, “How much comes from other areas,”
  2. Ibid, “Why is it so severe?”

Bottom image above: NASA

Biomass: Group finds more efficient wood-chip burning less polluting

Waste: there is a lot of it. There is that from the residential sector, the commercial sector, the industrial sector, the agricultural sector – you name it. The question is how to dispose of it all. Speaking to that last sector, fortunately in California, a ban on the burning of most agricultural waste is in effect.

Back on Jan. 28, 2014, a little over a year ago, I penned: “Garbage disposal: Rubbish not just for burning and dumping anymore.” As it had to do with state agricultural waste I wrote:

“‘[California Senate Bill] SB 705 was enacted in 2003 and bans open burning in three phases:

  • June 1, 2005: Field crops, most pruning and weed abatement;
  • June 1, 2007: Orchard Removals;
  • June 1, 2010: Pruning from crops harvested off the ground, vineyard removal and removal of diseased materials.’

“‘Agricultural burning is currently a significant source of air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley, responsible for more than ten tons per day of particulates and more than 15 tons per day of smog forming chemicals,’ noted the SJVAPCD [San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District].” (This information was sourced from: “Agricultural burn phase-out begins” in the “Valley Air News” July 2005 issue, an SJVAPCD publication).

Controlled open field burn, south Georgia
Controlled open field burn, south Georgia

I further stated: “The SJVAPCD then went on in the article in question to provide recommendations for alternatives to open-field agricultural burning such as chipping, the chopped-up material, for example, transported to co-generation facilities for further processing such as in electricity generation, or the ground-up material could be used for soil-amending purposes.”

But what about that co-generation or biomass burning; just how clean a process is it, anyway?

Well, the American Chemical Society in its Feb. 4, 2015 news release “Understanding air pollution from biomass burners used for heating: Real-Time Chemical Composition Analysis of Particulate Emissions from Woodchip Combustion” offers insight.

The ACS wrote: “As many places in the U.S. and Europe increasingly turn to biomass rather than fossil fuels for power and heat, scientists are focusing on what this trend might mean for air quality – and people’s health. One such study on wood-chip burners’ particulate emissions, which can cause heart and lung problems, appears in the ACS journal Energy & Fuels. The scientists say the findings could help manufacturers reduce the negative impact of this fuel in the future.”

What the researchers in the study found, according to the ACS in the release in question, was that particulate emissions varied depending on the stage of wood-chip combustion. If, on the other hand, wood-chip burning at a high efficiency level can be maintained, the amount of emissions can be reduced and this “could help the industry design units that are less polluting and less harmful to people.”

Pointed out in the release also was that according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, if there were a reduction in particulate (dust, smoke, soot) emissions of just 10 percent, at least 13,000 American lives could be saved annually.

The logical next step would be to improve combustion efficiency at biomass and co-generation plants where warranted; where a marked improvement in combustion emissions could be made, in other words.

Process of setting new smog standards shouldn’t be like pulling teeth

SMOG_-_NARA_-_542581.tif[1]I don’t believe I have ever before seen the kind of disagreement over a health standard having to do with one of the nation’s most problematic pollutants – ozone – than I’m seeing right now. Deciding on updated U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, I mean, how difficult a process does this need to be? The current daily standards – one primary and one secondary – of 75 parts per billion (ppb) don’t appear to be public health-protective enough.

According to Tony Barboza in the Los Angeles Times, environmentalists and other advocates would like to see the standard tightened to 60 ppb. Business interests, apparently, are saying “not so fast,” as this and even a less stringent standard of 70 ppb might force the export of jobs, that is, based on sentiment expressed.

What we know

Some of the nation’s worst ozone is in California. In 2011 through 2013, average daily ozone was 107 ppb in the South Coast air-shed, Barboza noted, the San Joaquin Valley air-shed registering an average 94 ppb in that same three-year period. Meanwhile, last year, in the South Coast air basin, the present standard was exceeded on 94 days. Remember: anything over the 75 ppb threshold corresponds to an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 101 which means “unhealthy for sensitive individuals” (or groups) or worse – either unhealthy for everyone (at best) or hazardous (at worst). With a new standard adopted this would more than likely mean the AQI would need to be adjusted to reflect the change.

It was probably one ardent supporter of the proposed revised standard in the Barboza piece who summed it up best: “‘If a standard does not protect the most vulnerable among us – the children, the elderly and those with asthma – then it’s not protective enough’ [Ann Rothschild, a 71-year-old and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral member in Sacramento] said.”

For even greater perspective, see: “Policy Assessment for the Review of the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards Health and Environmental Impacts Division, EPA-452/R-14-006, Aug. 2014 here.

A final ruling is expected by October later this year.

Not quite as definitive as a chosen standard, is compliance with said standard. As I understand things, it is expected that most of the country will be able to meet the revised standards within a decade, while California’s San Joaquin Valley and South Coast regions would be given a pass until 2037, according to Barboza.

Meanwhile, the EPA updated the annual standards for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) pollution to 12 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) of air (primary) and to 15 μg/m3 of air (secondary), on Dec. 14, 2012. The 24-hour primary and secondary PM 2.5 standards were also set that day at 35 μg/m3. In contrast, compared to the process of the setting of revised ozone standards, when the health standards were set for both fine and coarse particulate matter pollution (PM 2.5 and PM 10), respectively, the process appears to have been a relatively pain-free one.

Image above: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration