Smoggy Central Valley Could Lose in Fight on US Pollution Standards

This image of smog blanketing Bakersfield appeared in a 2015 article about new research from the University of California, Davis.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – Sometimes the air pollution in California’s Central Valley is so bad, her entire crop dies.

That’s what farmer Sia said at a weekly farmer’s market held Sundays in the parking lot of a hospital in Bakersfield.

Around us, vendors hawked wares ranging from fresh product to grass-fed meats and homemade nut butters while the scintillating scent of tri-tip sandwiches and grilled chicken permeated. Sia, an independent farmer from Fresno County, told me that without insurance, the death of a crop can mean the death of a farmer’s dreams.

“With the inconsistent water and drought issues, it’s hard to stay,” Sia, who didn’t want to give her last name, said. “Some give up because it’s too expensive.”

Her tables are heavy with fresh spring fare: ripe strawberries, plump red cherries, spears of asparagus, leafy greens, and green and yellow squash. I step aside for a moment as a customer, her arms full of berries, hands Sia a crisp $10 bill.

The threat of losing a crop to air pollution depends on what is grown, Sia said.

“There are different effects for different crops. It all depends on what’s in the field,” she said.

Science shows she’s right. Pollutants like sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, and ozone, the primary component of smog, both damage a plant’s leaves. If the leaves sustain enough damage, the entire plant will die. Carbon monoxide, which comes from car exhaust, can stunt growth and leave plants vulnerable to insect attack, according to an article on livestrong.com.

For an area defined by its agriculture industry, any harm to plants is bad news for economy.

Known as the breadbasket of California, the Central Valley is one of the most agriculturally rich areas of the United States – producing more than half of all fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the country.

Given the preeminence of agriculture and the harm air pollution can wreak on this lucrative industry, it comes as no surprise that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has joined a coalition of 16 attorneys general opposing Congress’ efforts to roll back critical ozone standards.

Introduced by Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, in February, the Ozone Standards Implementation Act seeks to delay implementation of new national ambient air quality standards for ozone promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2015.

That rule sought to strengthen the standard for ground-level ozone to 70 parts per billion, up from the 2008 standard of 0.075 parts per million.

The EPA estimated that the new standard would prevent 120 to 220 premature deaths each year and hundreds of hospital visits for asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases, and save up to $2.1 billion in associated health care costs, lost work days, and school absences in California alone.

Nationwide, the standard would prevent 330 to 660 premature deaths and thousands of hospital visits, and save up to $5.9 billion in health care costs, according to the EPA.

But the GOP’s proposed ozone bill would stop the new standards from going into effect until 2025. Moreover, it would replace the 5-year cycle of review for standards with a 10-year cycle, and exempt areas classified as “extreme nonattainment areas” from meeting these standards.

The proposed legislation would also weaken standards for other pollutants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead, prevent the EPA from setting standards based on public health, and include more loopholes for areas with dirty air.

In a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Becerra and the other attorneys general urged Congress to reject the bill and protect the standards set forth in the 2015 rule.

“Clean air shouldn’t be a luxury, and we shouldn’t make people wait even longer to get it,” Becerra said in a statement. “Can you imagine the pain a parent feels when his or her child can’t breathe? This legislation is a giant step backward for clean air and public health.”

Becerra’s commitment to protecting California’s air comes on the heels of the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report, which found the state has the worst air quality in the nation. Eight of the top 10 most polluted cities for particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5, are in California, as are seven of the 10 cities with the highest year-round concentrations of ozone.

Of those cities, half are in the Central Valley. The top three most-polluted regions for PM2.5 are Visalia-Hanford-Porterville, Bakersfield, and Fresno-Madera. Los Angeles leads the list of cities most polluted by ozone, followed by Bakersfield and Fresno-Madera.

Meanwhile, Bakersfield is yet again the most polluted city in the nation in terms of PM2.5 spikes, or days when the concentration of PM2.5 rises above limits established by the EPA for acceptably healthy air.

Ozone is formed of nitrous oxides, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, which are primarily produced by burning fossil fuels like gasoline, oil and coal or when certain chemical solvents evaporate. Sources of ozone emissions include vehicle tailpipes, smokestacks, power plants, and refineries.

Particle pollution is a mixture of tiny solids and liquids suspended in the air. Some are so small they cannot be seen without an electron microscope. This type of pollution largely comes from the dirty, smoky exhaust from tailpipes and coal-fired power plants, but can also be produced by dust storms, construction and agricultural activities, and mining operations.

Exposure to both types of pollution can cause reproductive and developmental issues, exacerbate respiratory diseases like asthma and lung cancer, and lead to cardiovascular harm and lowered immunity. Air pollution also causes an estimated 1,000 premature deaths a year. In comparison, around 1,800 people were murdered in California in 2015.

Though 125 million people nationwide still live in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution, that’s a 25 percent reduction from the 2012-2014 period analyzed in a prior report from the American Lung Association. Los Angeles continues to improve its score, dropping its average of unhealthy days to its lowest ever.

If Los Angeles, notorious for the clouds of smog hanging on the horizon, can consistently make progress in cleaning up its air, why does the Central Valley lag behind?

Part of the blame lies with the region’s topography. Ringed by several mountain ranges, including the Cascade, Sierra Nevada, and California Coastal ranges, the 18,000-square mile valley is a flat basin. Without any breezes from the coast to mix the bad air out, like the Delta breeze enjoyed in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties, the dirty, smoggy air gets trapped in the southern valley.

The Central Valley is also prone to ozone inversions, where warmer air floats above cooler air to form a lid that keeps polluted air swirling around like dirty water in a toilet bowl. Prolonged drought and intense heat have also created the perfect conditions for wildfires, which contribute to both PM2.5 pollution and create the raw ingredients of ozone.

When choosing who to blame for air quality woes, many point the finger at agriculture. At first glance, this seems reasonable. Anyone who has traveled around the Central Valley has seen tractors stirring up clouds of dust along the highways and back roads as they plow the fields, and those in Kern County are intimately familiar with the woes of nut harvest.

While financially lucrative for farmers, nut harvest is notoriously bad for air quality. For two or three months out of the year, pillars of dust billow from orchards and coat nearby trees, cars and houses in a fine brown sheet, contributing to PM10 and ground-level ozone pollution.

However, agricultural activities account for surprisingly little air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. While they are responsible for 59 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 65 percent of methane emissions from soils management and crop and fertilizer residue, agriculture contributes only 8 percent of total statewide greenhouse gas emissions, according to data from the state Air Resources Control Board.

Transportation and industrial activity are by far the biggest offenders, weighing in at 37 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Population growth is partly to blame. Already home to 6.5 million, the Central Valley is one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, meaning more cars and trucks on the road and, of course, more traffic congestion.

This also means greater freight traffic. Sixty-seven percent of goods shipped annually from California are by truck and 20 percent by parcel services. Though trucks ship out $1.3 trillion in goods and bring in another $1.3 million each year, they account for almost half of the state’s nitrous oxide and diesel particulate matter emissions.

But efforts to clean up the Central Valley’s dirty air have not failed for lack of trying. According to a 2016 PowerPoint prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Air Quality Task Force, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has the toughest regulations on both large and small businesses, farms and dairies, cars and trucks, and consumer products.

Businesses in the area are also doing their part to help. Michael Gutierrez, director of corporate communications with The Wonderful Company, told Courthouse News in an email that the company “is committed to finding new, environmentally safe alternatives to traditional harvesting methods, particularly in reducing dust and improving Central Valley air quality.”

The company not only helped develop a nut-harvesting machine that reduces dust particles by up to 70 percent, they no longer burn tree waste. Instead, they grind it up and send some of the bio-mass to a cogeneration plant “where it is used to generate energy and incorporate the balance into the soils to increase organic matter and improve soil health,” Gutierrez wrote.

Lauren Castillon, senior manager with Bolthouse Farms, said the company takes the welfare of the community and the environment very seriously.

“[T]hat’s why we make efforts to help minimize pollution by adopting new practices and technologies, like converting to electric irrigation and exploring windbreaks surrounding our fields. Additionally, we participate in emission reduction efforts, such as California’s Air Resource Board cap-and-trade program, requiring that participants decrease measurable emissions year over year to aid in reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020,” she wrote.

Business in the San Joaquin Valley spend approximately $40 billion a year on clean air, while the region’s air quality district spends over $1 billion of annual public and private investment on incentive-based reductions. Though these efforts have reduced emissions by over 80 percent, the district needs to achieve another 90 percent reduction to meet new standards, according to the PowerPoint.

Failing to meet these standards can lead to costly federal sanctions, including loss of highway funds. It may also force the district to take drastic measures, like shutting down all stationary sources of pollution, agriculture, passenger cars and heavy-duty trucks to reach attainment of federal standards.

These problems aside, the San Joaquin Valley’s air quality has steadily improved over the last 15 years. These advances are thanks in part to the district’s adoption of new rules to reduce emissions from stationary sources, cooperation with transportation agencies to develop transportation control measures, promotion of state and federal clean-vehicle and clean-fuel programs, and the development of programs like the Real-time Air Quality Network and Air Quality Flag program, which educate the public and allow them to make informed decisions based on air quality, according to the district’s FAQ webpage.

To keep this momentum going, Congress must keep the Clean Air Act intact and enforced, retain clean vehicle emissions standards, reduce emissions from new and existing oil and gas operations, and support tough air pollution control standards rather than retreat on the issue, the American Lung Association says in its report.

“The cuts being proposed at the EPA will not only cripple the EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act, it will also have a really negative impact on local air pollution cleanup efforts – the president’s budget includes half a billion dollars in cuts to state and local grants. That’s money they use to clean the air,” Paul Billings, the senior vice president of advocacy at the American Lung Association, told the online news site Quartz.

“Losing those dollars means that not only will the federal cop not be on the beat, it means that state and local agencies will be hamstrung as well. Which means we may lose some of the progress we saw in this report.”

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