At odds: CAA, Valley a contradiction in terms as one columnist sees it

To regular Air Quality Matters blog readers, the name Lois Henry should ring a bell. More importantly and relatedly and to provide some background, Henry’s essays regularly grace the Bakersfield Californian’s editorial pages. One of her recent op-eds has the title “Soberanes smoke illustrates one piece of valley’s air pollution puzzle,” which, by the way, was published in the Sept. 24, 2016 Bakersfield Californian edition.

This time, a part of what Henry alluded to in the op-ed is fugitive San Francisco Bay Area air. It isn’t so much that the Bay Area loses some of its air, given up to California’s 24,000 or so square-mile San Joaquin Valley (made possible with the assistance of prevailing winds, presumably), as it is what is oftentimes carried with and in it, that matters – that’d be pollution, that very thought not sitting particularly well with many on the Valley side of the coastal mountain divide (separating the two locales). It’s a reality that both causes trepidation and incites ire. Now, add to this the swirling debate over, of all things, percentages of tainted Bay Area air infiltrating the Valley, so, in getting to talking about this sore spot, it fast becomes apparent what a bone of contention such a topic as this has become.

Alas, the first piece of the Valley-related air-pollution puzzle, though this is just scratching the surface.

Meanwhile, Henry writes: “Folks here in the southern San Joaquin Valley have long contended that a significant portion of our pollution is brought in on the same breezes that keep air in coastal areas to the north so wonderfully pristine.”

Wait a minute! “A significant portion”? For reals?! So, what percentages are we talking about here anyway?

Okay, so according to one source1, roughly 27 percent, 11 percent and 7 percent of fugitive Bay Area pollutant-laden air lands in the north, center and south Valley sections, respectively. Henry-provided information in the speculative piece has the northern percentage pegged at 30 and around 7 percent is what manages to eventually find its way to the Valley’s southernmost reaches.

But, Henry retorts: “Hmmph. If the Soberanes smoke was any indication, I’d say NorCal’s emissions account for way more than 7 percent of our pollution.” The Soberanes Fire, incidentally, is a wildfire that has been burning in Monterey County west of the coastal mountain range since July this year, according to the Bakersfield Californian editorial author in question.

Why any of this matters, the reason has to do with how air pollution puzzle piece number one relates to puzzle piece number two.

From what I understand Henry to be communicating, the Clean Air Act may not be the right tool for the cleanup job at hand. In fact, Henry intones that the act does not take into account “economic or societal hardship.” She insists the CAA, which was once useful, has morphed into a pulverizer, a crusher, capable of decimating the economy of the Valley, basically.

Are you serious, Ms. Henry?! Apparently.

She also points out that the act has no provision for exempting unmet new, stricter air quality health standards and in place of the exemption penalties are assessed, much to her chagrin, or so it would seem. At least this is my interpretation of Henry’s words here.

“If a local district can’t come up with a plan to meet air standards,” Henry concedes, “the ultimate solution under the Clean Air Act is for the feds to take over.”

“The district cannot write a plan for new ozone and PM2.5 air standards because the technology does not exist to cut stationary sources any more than they’ve already been cut,” she insists.

There is much more Henry in her editorial has to offer. Her editorial in toto can be found here.

So let’s look at more of the way that pollution impacts the Valley.

For greater perspective, as it has to do with air pollution tracking during the ozone season, for example, there are numerous occasions when levels exceed limits. Ozone forms in the Valley based on a combination of factors: there are physical characteristics such as geography/topography (the Valley is bounded on three sides by mountain ranges on the east, south and west), and from the sunlight and heat and the preponderance of mobile and stationary sourced precursor emissions like hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen and more. If it is due to a lack of wind and/or rain, the result being no atmospheric mixing, plus the presence of mountains, these allow not only the building of ozone but its containment too. One point leading to the next, logic would then have it that whatever air pollution the Bay Area is serving up, under these conditions it would remain put. Furthermore, when hot and stagnant air is a factor in California’s central interior, fog and low-lying clouds typically prevail near the coast.

If this is what is going on where ozone is concerned, the same should hold true regarding fine particulate matter pollution during colder times of the year and it does.

Therefore, in putting two and two together, the question is how much of an impact is the state’s coastal conditions (weather, emissions, etc.) really having on the San Joaquin Valley, anyway – a little, a lot or at a level in between?

Personally, and speaking from experience, I don’t subscribe to the notion that Bay Area-to-Valley transboundary air drift (carrying in it pollutants, dust, debris, what-have-you), has too terribly much of an influence on the quality of South Valley air, especially during periods in which air stagnates.

Cleaning up Valley skies is an enormous job contingent on due diligence taken by the citizenry, government, business, industry (did I leave any entity out?), the full spectrum of helping concerns. People have to want to take this on in order for success to be realized. And, that there’s the bottom line.


  1. San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, Frequently Asked Questions, “How much comes from other areas” section. Also see: “Of smog standards, vehicle certifications and trans-boundary drifts” here.