Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Tractor replacement: Like taking 1 million cars off road

Farmer Will Scott Jr.’s 1989 Massey-Ferguson tractor sat on trailer Tuesday, waiting for demolition. Nearly a quarter-century old and spewing plumes of pollutants, it was time.

Farmer Will Scott Jr. photographs as his old polluting tractor is torn apart by large dismantling equipment. Photo by Sylvia Flores

Scott’s little tractor — which toiled on his 40-acre spread — had an honorable and memorable demise, according to public officials who gathered at Bruno’s Iron and Metal on Golden State Boulevard in Fresno.

With its destruction, the tractor replacement program in California has removed the equivalent of 1 million vehicles or 3,400 tons of nitrogen oxides per year — most of the reduction coming in the San Joaquin Valley. Nitrogen oxides are a key component in summertime ozone.

It’s a voluntary program involving $100 million in government funding to help farmers replace old tractors. The more than 3,200 farmers who have gotten involved in the last four years typically get tractors that run 75% cleaner.

Scott was pleased with his role and the celebration Tuesday.

“I’m impressed you took the time to come out here and see this,” said Scott, whose replacement tractor is a newer, cleaner-running trade-up. “You’re including the small farmer.”

The gathering featured Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, along with leaders from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Among the crowd was Jason Weller, new chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service; Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional director, and Lynn Terry, deputy executive officer of the state air resources board.

All talked about the continuing air-quality improvement in the Valley, though it still has a long way to go for healthy air. Farm air pollution is among a long list of pollution sources, they noted.

Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the local air district, announced the Valley had gone through the entire summer without exceeding the federal one-hour ozone standard.

“That’s the first time in our history,” he said.

But the star of this show was the 1989 tractor and Scott, who grows black-eyed peas, okra, corn, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli.

“I think it shows we are all working together,” he said. “There are a tremendous amount of small farmers here, and we are part of the solution, too.”

NASA takes its air-quality research thrill ride to Houston

NASA P-3B Orion

NASA’s P-3B Orion research airplane on the Palmdale Airport tarmac after a flight over Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley in January. The airplane is part of NASA’s DISCOVER-AQ research project to measure air pollution in the skies over major air-quality problem areas. Photo by Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

Back in January, a pair of NASA research airplanes packed full of scientists and instruments flew over Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley to measure winter air pollution in the region.

Now, the five-year, $30 million DISCOVER-AQ mission is getting ready to take to the skies over Houston, Texas, in the latest stage of science efforts to develop the next generation of satellites to measure air pollution from space.

The Houston flights will begin Sept. 4.

In late January and early February, the project made 10 overflights above the Valley — the second stop on DISCOVER-AQ’s research tour. In 2011, the team made similar flights over the Baltimore/Washington D.C. region.

The flights capture public attention because one of the airplanes, a four-engine P-3B Orion, flies lumbering low-level passes and stomach-turning spirals around selected ground stations where pollution monitors are set up. Instruments aboard the airplane measure the air quality outside in real time at altitudes from below 1,000 feet up to about 9,000.

A layer of haze blankets the San Joaquin Valley as seen from NASA’s P-3B Orion research airplane. Photo by Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

At the same time, a second smaller airplane cruises much higher, at about 26,000 feet, using lasers and other instruments to simulate how an orbiting satellite sees air pollution through the various layers of the atmosphere.

Here are some of the Twitter exerpts from my day with the Orion’s pilots and researchers when the mission was in the Valley (trust me when I say it was an adventure!).

By combining the observations from the ground, the spiraling Orion and the high-altitude plane, researchers hope to better understand and predict how, when and where pollution forms, and then develop satellites that can provide similar multi-level measurements from space.


Valley has briefly had Beijing-type siege

Beijing’s pollution this week was a lung-corroding 25 times worse than the federal threshold in the United States. Has the San Joaquin Valley ever seen levels that high?

Yes, but only for a few hours at a time once every few years. It happens after fireworks celebrations on the Fourth of July.

We’re talking about dangerous tiny particle pollution or PM-2.5. To explain the problem in China, it’s best use a quick comparison.

The U.S. standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The U.S. Embassy has recently reported an astounding 886 micrograms in Beijing. Schools there kept children indoors. Hospitals saw a 20% jump in patients with respiratory problems.

Back to the San Joaquin Valley.

On July 4, 2007, in Bakersfield, a monitor recorded 1,000 micrograms between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. For the next two hours, it remained near that level.

That’s scary, considering medical researchers have long said the U.S. standard is too lenient at 35 micrograms.

What happens on the Fourth of July? The sky is showered with smoke and metals such as magnesium, copper and barium. The metals cause a range of problems, including skin irritations, muscle weakness and confusion in people with kidney problems. PM-2.5 is linked to lung and heart disease as well as early mortality.

But the Valley’s problem, which among the worst in the nation, bears little resemblance to the air emergency in China.