Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Celebrate air-quality advances, but don’t think the work is over

This message has played for years: San Joaquin Valley air quality has come a long way, and we need to celebrate progress. But we’ve still got years of work ahead to achieve all federal standards.

You’ll recognize the theme in the latest annual report from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which turned 20 years old last year.

The report says winters and summers are the cleanest they’ve ever been here. The Valley has achieved the coarse particle pollution standard — it’s called PM-10, or dust.

But tighter federal ozone and particle pollution standards will come. The Valley probably will still be struggling in the next two decades. The 4 million people here live in a bowl of air that traps pollutants.

The difference now is that there has been a shift in public awareness. I wrote my first news story on the air district in June 1993, and it illustrated the thinking of the time.

The story was titled “Wood-burning rules go on back burner.” People refused fireplace rules. Instead, the district began discussing “voluntary wood-burning rules.”

“The two words (voluntary and rules) go together as much as jumbo and shrimp, and army and intelligence,” said Charles Harness, a board member at the time. The words confusing and toothless also were used.

A dozen years later, people still didn’t want a wood-burning rule, but the district became one of the first places in the country to enforce bans on burning.

The change was forced by air-quality activists and advocates who filed a federal lawsuit. This kind of legal action has been a driving force behind many important changes in Valley air quality.

Today, the fireplace soot problem remains, but Valley winters are nothing like they were in the 1990s.

More importantly, people seem to have come around. The air district now is tightening the wood-burning rule, and many readers have told me that it’s good news.

The wood-burning rule is just one among many important changes over the last 20 years. The air district also has regulated air pollution from farms as well as city sprawl. Air leaders also pioneered an alert system online and via texting to tell the public when pollution is spiking.

All of which is important to recognize with fanfare. After the celebration, though, there’s more work and expense waiting.