In search of clean air: California hard at work in clean air fight, has a ways to go still

If you want to know where some of the worst places in America are for ozone and particulate pollution, look no farther than California.

SMOG_-_NARA_-_542581.tif[1]That’s not just a blemish on the Golden State (and America), it’s a black eye. Add the term “eye sore” to regions plagued with smog.

Still, in a Patterson (Calif.) Irrigator report written by Jonathan Partridge titled: “Cleaner air still hit with failing grades,” Partridge cites American Lung Association of California President and Chief Executive Officer Jane Warner as having said: “‘The [American Lung Association] State of the Air 2013 report shows that California is continuing the long-term trend to cleaner and much healthier air,’ Warner said. ‘This progress in cleaning up air pollution demonstrates that our clean air laws are working.’”

“‘However, our report also shows that air pollution continues to put lives at risk throughout the state. We must step up our efforts to cut pollution so all Californians can breathe clean, healthy air,’” Partridge wrote in citing Warner.

America’s dirtiest air hotspots are the Los Angeles and San Joaquin Valley regions for both ozone and particulate pollution.

Cities ranked high for particulates are Bakersfield-Delano and Merced (highest), Fresno-Madera (3rd highest) and Hanford-Corcoran (4th highest), according to Partridge. What’s more, Los Angeles-Riverside had the worst ozone problem, “closely followed by Visalia-Porterville, Bakersfield-Delano, Fresno-Madera and Hanford-Corcoran,” the Patterson Irrigator columnist noted.

There are those who contend that California air over the years has gotten cleaner.

In the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s (SJVAPCD) 2012-2013 annual report: “Report to the Community, 2012-13 Edition,” in the “Message from the Air Pollution Control Officer” section, Executive Director/Air Pollution Control Officer Seyed Sadredin declared, “We have seen significant improvements in the [San Joaquin] Valley’s air quality, and clean-air strategies designed and implemented in the Valley now serve as the model for the rest of the state and nation. The progress we’ve made together over the past two decades is unmistakable: an 80 percent reduction in air pollution from Valley businesses, the cleanest winters and summers on record, the attainment of an important air quality standard for particulate matter (PM 10), significant reductions in the number of days with unhealthy air quality, and being closer than ever to meeting tough new health standards for ozone. These are real victories and they should be celebrated.”

It would seem counterintuitive for an area with some of the nation’s worst air quality to also be “the model for the rest of the state and nation,” clean-air strategies design and implementation-wise.

Please keep in mind that the Valley’s continued failure to meet a federal one-hour ozone health standard, has resulted in a yearly $12 fee being tacked on to annual vehicle registration fees, the extra $12 going toward air pollution cleanup efforts. That amounts to $25 million, part of a yearly $30 million fine assessed for ozone non-compliance. Valley businesses, meanwhile, are on the hook for the remaining $5 million.

It is my understanding that if the federal one-hour health standard for ozone pollution is met for any three consecutive years, the $12 added to the annual vehicle registration fee disappears.

Weather and topography play a role

I believe weather, to an extent, has been a factor in the air quality picture in the Valley.

View of Los Angeles, California taken from space
View of Los Angeles, California taken from space

Partridge in the Patterson Irrigator wrote: “The [State of the Air] 2013 report noted that the decline in Modesto’s particulate matter ranking stemmed from unusual climate conditions in 2011, along with changes in monitoring.

“The region was particularly hit hard in late 2011 and early 2012, when the air was stagnant with little wind and little rain, [SJVAPCD spokesman Anthony] Presto said.”

Related to this Sadredin wrote: “On one hand, the Valley’s geography, topography and climate conditions demand more from the Valley in the form of measures to reduce air pollution. On the other hand, the Valley’s resources and capacity to absorb regulatory costs are limited due to the region’s economic disadvantages.”

In “Plagued by polluted air: Is the San Joaquin Valley at increased asthma risk?,” I expressed, “I wholeheartedly believe the direful situation need not get any more direful before there is improvement and along these lines I would hate to think conditions would have to hit rock bottom before any real change is made.”

And then I asked: “But is this where the Valley is headed?”

Being a model for the state and nation in terms of design and implementation of clean-air strategies, one would think the answer to the above would be a decisive “No!”

Fighting the good air fight

As SJVAPCD Executive Director/Air Pollution Control Officer Sadredin earlier expressed, air-quality-improvement victories should be celebrated. No question. On the other hand, with so much more ground to cover in this regard, there should absolutely be no let-up in the fight to rid the air of damaging, deleterious and deplorable pollution. When that happens, then true victory can be declared. That’s a day that I look forward to indeed!

California's flat, expansive and agriculturally-robust but often air-pollution-shrouded San Joaquin Valley
California’s flat, expansive and agriculturally-robust but often air-pollution-shrouded San Joaquin Valley

Images: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (top); NASA (middle)

– Alan Kandel

This post was last revised on Jan. 14, 2020 @ 7:20 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.