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,” http://www.valleyair.org/General_info/Frequently_Asked_Questions.htm
  2. Ibid, “Why is it so severe?” http://www.valleyair.org/General_info/Frequently_Asked_Questions.htm

Bottom image above: NASA

1 thought on “Of smog standards, vehicle certifications and trans-boundary drifts”

Leave a Comment