Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

That federal air penalty is really a local DMV fee, money stays here

Valley motorists have been paying most of a $29 million federal dirty-air penalty since 2011. It’s the extra $12 on your annual Department of Motor Vehicle registration fees.

The federal mandate for the penalty would be lifted if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees that the San Joaquin Valley has attained the one-hour ozone standard. Local air leaders this month are approaching EPA with a historic attainment request.

But what has the federal government been doing with the $29 million each year? I asked the EPA.

“Characterizing the DMV fees as a federal penalty is inaccurate, and it’s the air district that has received the $29 million, not the federal government,” a spokeswoman told me this week.

I confess I have written about the air district part of that statement. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has been open about the money for years. It is used in such Valley clean-air programs as diesel replacement.

But almost every time I write about it, someone writes or calls and asks why Valley residents have to send millions of dollars to the federal treasury. That is not happening.

When the “penalty” was enforced, the Valley air district was allowed to collect the fee. A few years ago, the state law gave the district the option to collect these DMV fees — whether or not the district is under a federal mandate.

Local air leaders say if the Valley attains the one-hour ozone standard, they want to eliminate the mandate.

The next question: How would the public feel about continuing the $12 fee to help achieve the much tougher eight-hour ozone standard as well as the tiny particulate standard?

Expect that question and discussion to come up later on.

Record-setting summer for air quality, but it’s still worst in country

I’m still thinking about ozone and the summer of 2013. I think the good news in California is also the bad news.

The good? Both the San Joaquin Valley and the South Coast Air Basin are poised to set all-time records for the least number of bad days — 86 in the Valley and 90 in South Coast, so far.

The bad? South Coast’s lowest-ever number of eight-hour ozone exceedances is still the worst in the country this year. The Valley’s lowest-ever is second worst. And third place is not even close to South Coast or the Valley.

Antelope Valley is third with 64 exceedances. Coachella Valley is fourth with 48. Houston is fifth with 20.

I checked the number of exceedances for the one-hour ozone standard, too. The Valley has not breached the standard this year, which would be a first if it holds up through the end of the warm season.

South Coast, which includes Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, had four exceedances of the one-hour standard. Houston had one. I found no others.

A small milestone on the road to eight-hour ozone cleanup

My Sunday story dwelled on the old one-hour ozone standard. The San Joaquin Valley appears poised to achieve it, thus wiping out a $29 million annual federal penalty.

Smoggy summer sky in Fresno.

But what about that other ozone standard — the eight-hour? It looks like this could be a rec0rd-setting year for it. That’s important, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.

First the numbers: If we have six or fewer October or November exceedances for this tougher, eight-hour standard, it would be the lowest total ever recorded here.

The Valley has 86 exceedances, as of Sunday. The record is 93 set in 2010.

Over the last five years, the Valley has averaged a little more than six October exceedances per year — ranging from only two in 2009 to nine in 2011. There have only been two exceedances in November over the last five years combined. There’s a chance the record would be set.

It’s important because it is progress, and we’re talking about human health. The threshold spans eight hours, which is a long time. It’s hard to prevent children or anyone else from being exposed to it at some point during a bad day.

Ozone is a corrosive gas that can scorch the lungs like a sunburn. Aside from triggering coughing and wheezing, it can cause heart arrhythmia that can lead to stroke.

Dozens of people die prematurely in the Valley each year due to ozone exposure, studies have shown. Bottom line, this is a dangerous air pollutant, and the Valley is still many years away from achieving the eight-hour standard for it.

Will the Valley dip below 100 dirty-air days this year?

Fresno’s gritty skyline this September.

The San Joaquin Valley might not exceed the eight-hour federal ozone standard 100 times this year — not exactly a success story anywhere in the country except here or Southern California.

But it is news. It has only happened twice here, according to the records. In 2009, the count was 98. In 2010, it was an all-time low of 93.

The only problem is the weather can be cruel in late September. The last four days of September 2010 were triple-digit nightmares.

The heat continued sporadically that year. There were 10 exceedances after Oct. 1 in 2010 — two of them after Nov. 1.

Flash forward to this year. The total is 77 on Sept. 13. It was 74 on that day three years ago. So there’s a chance the total will be below 100 exceedances this year.

I usually add something about the target being zero exceedances. For now, I’d settle for a shutout for the rest of September, October and November.

One-hour, eight-hour standard, it’s confusing

I apologize if there’s been some confusion about an air-quality blog I wrote a few weeks ago — remember the one about the “silver lining” during an ozone siege?

A few readers have asked how there could be a silver lining if there are more eight-hour breaches of the standard than last year. The silver lining — or good news — was that the air didn’t breach the one-hour standard.

Eight-hour is a much tougher standard, the average of eight one-hour readings. The one-hour standard refers to the peak reading during a one-hour period.  They are quite different.

Now, let’s talk about comparing the eight-hour exceedence totals with last year’s totals. It’s a dangerous thing to do early in the season.

At the time of that blog item, there were 23 exceedences this year compared to 17 last year. So isn’t the air actually getting worse? Why didn’t I point that out in the item? Well, check it now, and you’ll see why it’s dangerous to jump to any conclusion right now.

There are 25 exceedences through this week, compared to 26 at this point last year. I was simply giving a running total in my blog item a few weeks ago.

One last thing. Improvement is a gradual thing in air quality, and the San Joaquin Valley is far from clean or healthy.

In summertime, the goal is eliminating ozone exceedences. Last year, the Valley had 105. Alongside South Coast Air Basin in the Southern California area, that’s the worst in the country.

But compare the numbers this year to 2003.

There were 38 exceedences at this point in 2003, and there had been a one-hour exceedence. During that period in 2003, I counted 17 days when the ozone concentration was above 100 parts per billion — an exceedence happens at 76.

This year, there have been 25 exceedences and only three days when ozone exceeded 100 parts per billion. Clearly, the air quality is improving, but not very quickly for many people.

Air-quality activists say the improvement comes partly because of the relocation of the Arvin air monitor in Kern County. That air monitor showed the most exceedences in the nation. The new one — two miles away — doesn’t record as many bad days.

There are many other arguments about the improvement. I’ll leave that for the readers to comment.

I want to leave you with the clear message: A few weeks ago during record-breaking heat, the Valley didn’t exceed the one-hour standard, which is connected with a $29 million annual fine paid mostly by motorists here.

But the air still is a long way from the goal.

Fire season starts early, air-quality warnings will follow

There already have been brush fires around O’Neals, Millerton Lake, Porterville and Fresno. Residents are fleeing flames in Southern California. With dry grasslands and forests after another subpar wet season, this could be a very ugly fire season.

The immediate concern is danger to residents, firefighters and homes. Air quality is a secondary concern, but it’s worth noting because it can become a wider public health concern. Pay attention to the warnings from air authorities.

Remember June 2008? There were thousands of fires sparked by lightning. Columns of smoke drifted into the San Joaquin Valley from many directions.

For about a week, dirty air simultaneously breached both the ozone and particle pollution standards. The double whammy happened again in July 2008, though it wasn’t as bad as that June episode.

Fires are known for soot or particle pollution, which can make the air hazardous to breathe. Ozone-creating gases also come from fires. It’s no coincidence that 2008 was the last time the Valley had more than 125 breaches of the ozone standard.

Ozone is a corrosive gas that damages the lungs. Over time, it can create a kind of scarring in lung tissue, health researchers say.

Soot is considered to be PM-2.5, microscopic pollution that evades the body’s defenses and sometimes passes from the lungs into the blood stream.

Older people, small children and folks with lung or heart problems should stay indoors when they hear the warnings from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Exceedances v. violations of air standard

Pop quiz: When the Valley’s air breached the federal ozone standard earlier this month, was it an exceedance or a violation?

In federal air-speak — a legal language invented over the past few decades — it was an exceedance, not a violation

Air quality was a concern during this Cross City Race several years ago.

I called it a violation, which I think is easier to understand when we’re speaking in general terms. I sparingly use the term exceedance when I’m explaining the law or its consequences.

But maybe it’s time to start using both exceedance and violation, and explaining the difference each time for clarity. What do you readers think?

So, let’s talk about difference. You need three exceedances at a monitor to get an official violation. You can see why people who know the difference are upset when I write that the Valley’s two March breaches — now I’ve invented my own air-speak — are violations.

In the legal world, it’s an important distinction. Exceedances are cause for concern. Violations can knock your community out of compliance with the standard. That can lead to penalties and expense for the community involved.

How does a community achieve the federal standard? A federal official emailed me this several years ago:

“A community will meet the eight-hour standard when the three-year average of the annual fourth highest daily maximum eight-hour ozone concentration measured at each monitoring site is less than 76 parts per billion (ppb).”

I’ve just been writing that we need zero violations. I’m pretty sure that would work — for both exceedances and violations.

Honestly, I’ve never been able to write a sentence about the “three-year average of the fourth annual highest daily maximum” and really make it sing.

But I am now seriously thinking of switching from my conversational use of “violations” to the combination of exceedances and violations. Maybe there is value in making the distinction each time I refer to it.

For those who are still awake after reading this, let me know what you think.

Air activist Kevin Hall now with California Nurses Association

Longtime activist Kevin Hall this week left his position as director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition to become a labor representative for the California Nurses Association (CNA).

Hall, who has led the coalition since mid-2011, will remain involved with the coalition on its steering committee as well as the Healthy Air & Stable Climate action subcommittee.

“CNA is a great fit for me,” he said in an email. “The valley’s path to clean air is a political one, and the nurses of CNA are the largest, most effective union in our state. Their pro-health stands could not be better.”

Dolores Weller, associate director of the air quality coalition, has been named as interim director for the coalition.

 

UC Davis uses Fresno air to study most toxic particles

Not all pollution particles are created equally bad for you. The ones from cars, trucks, fireplaces and cooking are probably getting the worst reactions from your body.

Two University of California scientists came to the conclusion after collecting air samples from Fresno in summer 2008 and winter 2009, identifying the particles in the samples and allowing laboratory mice to inhale them.

Murky air in downtown Fresno

The approach is the first of its kind, according to the UC Davis scientists, Anthony Wexler and Kent Pinkerton. Wexler is the director of the Air quality Research Center at Davis. Pinkerton is professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

Their work on this study will help regulators in the future as they tighten standards to protect human health.

“Right now, air-quality standards are based on the mass of the particulate matter and don’t distinguish between natural sources, like sea spray, and known toxic sources, like diesel exhaust,” said Wexler, who led the study.

The bottom line: New standards some day might be aimed at certain types of particles, instead of all particles. It would save money for industries in the cleanup.

The study was funded by the California Air Resources Board and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Look for these stories in 2013

A year ago, the Sierra snowpack was an anemic 20% of normal. Now it’s a whopping 146%.

At this time last year, the San Joaquin Valley was gasping through a 44-day siege of federal air violations — dangerous soot and debris. This year, the Valley only had five violations in December.

California’s capricious weather makes all the difference.

At the same time, some things I cover in the Earth Log and in the news columns have not changed much. My beat has had a kidney stone of a year. Thankfully, it has passed. But 2013 might be more of the same.

— The complex San Joaquin River restoration continues to move forward. Experiments included trapping adult salmon and hauling them upstream near Fresno to spawn. The billion-dollar restoration still lags behind the initial and ambitious timetable. Many big projects, such as replacing Sack Dam, are expected to make progress this year.

— A dozen years after setting aside more than 300,000 acres for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, people are still arguing about how to manage it. The latest plan was released during 2012. The Sierra Club and others have appealed the plan.

— Yosemite National Park has an even longer-running discussion. A dozen years ago, I wrote a story about the park’s Merced River protection plan — which was already about a decade late. I lose track of how many times it has been rewritten by court order. By July 2013, the National Park Service is supposed to have another plan out. This might be the one that finally gets through.

— Dozens of cities are now lined up to sue Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, the manufacturers of a now-defunct farm fumigant. The fumigant contained a chemical called 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP, a powerful cancer-linked toxin. It’s in the drinking water across a wide swath of the Valley, including Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield and a host of other cities. It may take hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the public.

— Small towns throughout the Valley still wait for the California Department of Public Health for funding to clean up nitrates in their drinking water. Nitrates come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation. A University of California study says the problem threatens drinking water for 250,000 people.

— Kettleman City, the Latino town in western Kings County, has its own special water problem. It needs the financial help of Chemical Waste, the owner of the hazardous waste landfill near town. The landfill needs to expand so it can offer the financial help. But plenty of Kettleman residents would rather see that landfill close.

— The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District approved a new plan to clear up tiny specks of pollution called PM-2.5. As they often do, environmentalists did not think the plan was tough enough. That’s often a prelude to a legal challenge — a very familiar scenario.