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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The federal government last week announced a new standard for dangerous bits of soot, chemical and other debris — saying it will save hundreds of lives when the air is clear in 2020.
On Thursday, the local air district will consider a plan with a 2019 timeline to clean up this debris. So, we’re fine with the new standard, right? Not exactly.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is not talking about the new standard announced last week. It’s talking about a new standard announced a few years ago.
And, like most new standards, the Valley can’t possibly meet this one in time to avoid a problem with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If you’re thinking this is confusing, you’re right. The Valley and the Los Angeles area’s South Coast Air Basin are still struggling to keep up with older standards, much less achieving new ones.
Every few years when medical research advances and regulators realize the old standards are not protecting people, we get a new drama in the Valley and South Coast.
That’s always going to be the case. South Coast has 16 million people and big challenges with the warm weather. The Valley is surrounded by mountains and has even bigger challenges with weather.
The confusion and drama are worth it only because the air quickly becomes a public health crisis at times in the Valley. The EPA was not exaggerating when it reported that lives would be saved with a particle pollution standard that cuts the soot and other debris by 20%.
Who are the people who die prematurely due to this pollution? Think about people you know who have heart, lung or other severe health problems. It could be your grandfather, your aunt or even you.
A 2008 study by California State University at Fullerton showed that 800 people die prematurely in the Valley each year. Most of those deaths are blamed on microscopic soot, chemicals and other particles.
Economist Jane V. Hall, one of the Cal State Fullerton authors of the study, placed a value of more than $5 billion on the lives of those who die from bad air quality. It’s not actual money. It’s a value set by federal government based on risk and human life..
The whole process of cleaning the air under federal law is confusing and just a bit of a mess. But the plan under consideration Thursday at the local air district will make quite a difference. The new standard, which may seem completely out of reach right now, will help even more.
Over Thanksgiving, a friend asked how the San Joaquin Valley’s air quality might affect someone with a heart problem. It’s a good question now when the most dangerous air issues arrive.
There is evidence that heart attack risk rises as particle pollution, known as PM-2.5, increases.
What’s PM-2.5? Think soot from wood burning in fireplaces, though it also comes from diesel exhaust, chemicals in the air and microscopic moisture droplets.
By chance, an air-quality activist last week sent me a link to an article in progress on the Journal the American College of Cardiology. It included a section on PM-2.5, saying the odds of a fatal heart attack for nonsmokers rise 22% for each 10 microgram increase in PM-2.5.
The health standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air. On Jan. 1 this year, one Fresno monitor was 70 micrograms higher than that federal standard.
You don’t need to do the math to see that even people without heart or lung problems were suffering through an air crisis at the time.
The article advises anyone with cardiac problems to avoid exposure during episodes of PM-2.5. Last winter, that would have meant avoiding the outdoors for weeks in December and January.
Obviously, the Valley has many violations of the federal PM-2.5 standard. The biggest hot spots seem to be Fresno and Bakersfield, but there are PM-2.5 violations in many places.
What about this year?
A quick look at the California Air Resources Board site tells us that PM-2.5 hasn’t been a problem yet. If we have a lot of stormy weather this year, we might not have a long run of bad days as we did last year.
If you’re interested in finding out about the air quality in your area, click on this air district page and look for the closest monitor.
This is a tough time of year for people with sensitive lungs. The particle pollution — think of microscopic soot, chemicals and other debris — seems to get a little worst toward the middle of the day. If ozone is the problem in your area today, look for it to spike in the afternoons.
Let’s hope a little breeze blows some of this stuff out as the weather cools in the next few days.
Environmental watchdogs filed suit last week to stop that $12 dirty-air fee now attached to your vehicle registration each year. Keep your eye on this one, folks.
It’s all about that $30 million ozone fine that the San Joaquin Valley pays each year for missing a cleanup deadline.
This lawsuit hits at the heart of who pollutes and who pays in the Valley — where there have been more ozone violations in the last 12 years than any other place in the country. The fine is for failing to achieve an old ozone standard.
The lawsuit says the fine has been illegally shifted from major industries to residents, but local air authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency don’t see it quite that way.
The federal suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Latinos United for Clean Air, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club.
By law, the federal fine for missing the cleanup deadline in 2010 is supposed to be pointed at major industries, Earthjustice says. The EPA violated the Clean Air Act when it allowed local air leaders to waive the fine for many of these industries, the suit says.
But local air authorities say industries already have spent $40 billion over the last several decades and reduced pollution dramatically. Now, they say, it’s time for motorists, who help create the pollution, to pay a little more, too.
There are a host of arguments on both sides about who pollutes more and how the cost should be split up. I’ll let readers trot out the numbers and the arguments.
I’ll conclude by answering the one question that is asked every time I bring up this $30 million penalty.
Where does the money go? It goes into the Valley’s pool of pollution-reduction funding. It’s used, for instance, to help replace dirty diesel engines in the Valley.