On becoming air compliant in the SJV: The big picture and what’s at stake

Living in a part of the U.S. – California’s San Joaquin Valley (Valley) – that year after year experiences some of the worst episodes of air pollution – ozone (O3) and fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) – well, in this regard, there is certainly much to be desired. I speak from experience.

So, now that I’ve learned of a new, state-approved, regional plan to further mitigate area air pollution, I’m encouraged. Truth be told, I can’t help but wonder if this latest plan will have teeth, will be effective and if Valley air quality will ever meet federal health standards for O3 and PM 2.5. These are legitimate concerns.

Important to note, the jurisdiction having local regulatory control – limited, but local regulatory control nonetheless – is the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district).

Meanwhile, responsible for producing roughly 85 percent of the Valley’s air pollution problem is the mobile sources sector.

Encouraging is the notion that the Valley’s airshed has been getting cleaner, according to air-district data. Cleaner, however, doesn’t mean clean enough, meaning Valley air quality isn’t in compliance which means more work is needed before air-quality attainment in the Valley is reached. On top of this, said attainment must be reached by air-district-specified deadline dates so as to prevent potential punitive measures from being imposed. As it has to do with the plan alluded to above, the focus pollutant here is PM 2.5.

Much of the Valley’s air pollution is produced in the Valley. Much, of course, doesn’t mean all. Fractional amounts blow in from elsewhere – some from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento Valley and some even from overseas, Asia predominantly. Because of prevailing winds and the jet stream, without the help and cooperation from these places, those pollutants pouring into the Valley from afar will continue.

And, the pollution created in the Valley, because of inversions, combined with Valley topography (ringed by mountains on three sides – the east, south and west), absent the presence of filtering winds or air-cleansing rains, that pollution tends to stick around. And, the more that pollution sticks around on account of those trapping and retaining factors, the more concentrated that pollution becomes. And, this pollution is detrimental to human health when breathed in. In that regard, Valley pollution is not inconsequential. Such can cause coughing, wheezing, can trigger asthma flare-ups in asthmatics, and can lead to debilitating diseases like stroke, heart attack, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even lung cancer, not to mention premature death.

Compounding this situation is population in the Valley which, according to figures provided by the air district, is growing at an annual rate of approximately 1.29 percent or, for the 2015-2030 period, 19.3 percent. Keep in mind this is the projected population growth rate for this time period as determined by the California Department of Finance. More travel miles from heightened driving activity coupled with an increase in consumer purchases (or products use) can exacerbate existing air-quality conditions.

These are the challenges Valley residents are faced with, which is why it is critically important to have air quality in the San Joaquin Valley be compliant – as is the case elsewhere where the problem is similar.

As for the various NAAQS (National Ambient Air Quality Standards) or, in other words, federal standards and deadlines said standards must be met by in order for the Valley to avoid potential punitive measures (more on this in a moment) according to air-district-released plan information in November 2018 for the pollutant PM 2.5, these are:

  • 1997 standard: 65 micrograms per cubic meter (24-hour); 15 μg/m3 (annual); attainment date: 12/31/2020
  • 2006 standard: 35 μg/m3 (24-hour); 15 μg/m3 (annual); attainment date: 12/31/2024
  • 2012 standard: 35 μg/m3 (24-hour); 12 μg/m3 (annual); attainment date: 12/31/2025

Concerning is the notion that if the federal health standards are not met by the respective designated dates, federal sanctions on the Valley could be imposed, one of which has to do with the withholding of federal highway funds. (It is but one such sanction). And, it wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket either; we’re talking to the tune of $2.5 billion.

That the money would go for highway improvement at all, as I see it, such won’t do a thing to improve the quality of the air in the Valley and, in fact, and again as I see it, doing such would only exacerbate the Valley’s air pollution problem.

Withholding the money is the wrong answer in my opinion. That being the case, the money would be better served going to a zero-emissions program in the Valley like the high-speed rail project and should be released for such use immediately if for no other reason than the fact that there is no telling how long those funds will be withheld. By designating such for high-speed rail use, it would definitely get this statewide project in the Valley much farther along.

As it currently stands, the thinking on this funding distribution to me makes zero sense.

For more on the plan in question, visit the air district’s Web site here.

California’s expansive and agriculturally fertile yet often air-polluted San Joaquin Valley

This post was last revised on Feb. 16, 2019 @ 7:27 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

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