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.

Just when you thought it was safe to inhale

The October whiplash is in full swing. The San Joaquin Valley’s dirty air suddenly made a comeback in the last 10 days, then just as quickly vanished in a storm Monday.

Just a few weeks ago, I had written that the Valley has a good shot at the lowest-ever recorded number of federal eight-hour ozone exceedances. With a rash of exceedances — eight since Oct. 19 — it’s going to be close.

The total now is 91. The record is 93.

South Coast Air Basin in Southern California has 94 exceedances right now. The region has had only one ozone November exceedance in the last five years.

It’s possible the Valley could wind up with more than South Coast this year. That would mean the Valley would have the most in the nation.

There’s another issue in the Valley. A reader points out high hourly readings for tiny particle pollution, wondering why the residential wood-burning ban doesn’t start in October. Right now, the rule kicks in Nov. 1 each year.

As I understand it, the tiny particle threshold — known as the standard for PM-2.5 — is an average over 24 hours. So hourly readings, by themselves, are not considered exceedances.

But the reader pointed out some pretty high hourly readings, saying October is known for these problems. It might be worth taking a longer look at this point.

Remember, wood-burning restrictions begin Friday. Check with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s web site to see if wood-burning is allowed in your county before you light up.

Breathe now, soot season on its way

People are getting a breather between dirty-air seasons right now in the San Joaquin Valley — ozone season is almost gone and soot season hasn’t quite started.

Which is worse, ozone or soot? It’s definitely soot, which is my shorthand term for specks of soot, chemicals and other microscopic debris.

These specks account for the vast majority of early mortality related to dirty air.  In the air-quality community, the specks are known as PM-2.5.

About 670 premature deaths will be eliminated by 2019 when the region is supposed to achieve the PM-2.5 standard, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Where are the deaths occurring? Kern County has nearly a third of them with 207 a year, according to the research. Fresno County has 172. Tulare County has 86.

There’s a lot of other folks suffering, too.

Research shows there will be reductions hospital admissions related to heart attacks and asthma. More than 125,000 days of lost work will be eliminated.

When you add up all costs for those non-fatal health problems, you get $102 million total, the air district says.

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.

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.”

Clearing Sequoia’s air 83 years from now

Giant Forest web cam looking at the San Joaquin Valley.

Take a look at the Giant Forest web cam. Most of the time, you can see why the National Parks Conservation Association sees a need to improve hazy conditions in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

It is improving, the group says, but far too slowly. How long will it take to clear the air at this rate? About 83 years, the parks association said last week, quoting statistics from the California Air Resources Board.

The parks association got such calculations for many national parks as part of a campaign for more action.

The group’s sampling of 10 national parks includes Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and Sequoia. Yellowstone won’t get natural air quality until 2163. Check out the other parks. You’ll find Sequoia’s 2096 is the earliest cleanup date.

Sequoia’s foothill air monitor at Ash Mountain is among the smoggiest places in the country. Sequoia usually has more bad ozone days each year than Fresno, Bakersfield or Los Angeles.

Ozone is invisible, but it makes the haze more unhealthy. The parks association says  more natural conditions will be better for both people and Sequoia-Kings Canyon.

“The basic idea is that clear air will be good for both the lungs of people and the ecosystem of the national park,” said Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Program director and counsel for the parks groups.

That means focusing on clean-air improvements on vehicles in California, Kodish said. The cleaner engine rules need to be developed faster, she said.

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.

Will Valley finally achieve an ozone standard this year?

August, the partially completed column on the right, has seen fewer eight-hour exceedances than in the past.

By October, people in the San Joaquin Valley may not be carrying an extra $29 million debt for missing the old federal one-hour ozone standard.

It appears the Valley could achieve an ozone standard for the first time. This standard dates back decades. An EPA reference indicates a final decision on Feb. 8, 1979, to enforce it.

Pick the reason for the improvement: public awareness, billions of dollars spent on pollution control by businesses, landmark local air rules, cleaner fuels, cleaner cars, environmental lawsuits, good weather, better luck — all of the above.

If it happens, it will be memorable.

Until the last six or seven years, the Valley wasn’t even close to making any kind of ozone standard — federal, state, eight-hour, one-hour. The Valley still has a tough road ahead to make the federal eight-hour standard in the next decade.

This month, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued a report that looked back 17 years to see the Valley’s progress with the one-hour standard.  In 1996, the Valley spent 56 days over the one-hour standard. In 2012, it was three. So far this year, it’s zero.

August has been memorable already. There have been 11 days this month when ozone didn’t exceed either federal standard — the more stringent eight-hour or the old one-hour. Dating to 1994, there hasn’t been an August with more than 10 good days.

Heat, yes, but ozone needs sunlight, too

My story Sunday on cooling down Fresno to help lower ozone was directly at heat, but air temperature is not the only part of the equation.

On Sunday, nature demonstrated why heat isn’t the only factor. It was 102 degrees but just cloudy enough to slow down the chemical reaction that makes ozone.

There was no breach of either federal ozone standard on Sunday — in the middle of August with very light winds and 100-plus degrees.

Ozone needs oxides of nitrogen from combustion sources, such as your car’s engine, and reactive organic gases, such as fumes from gasoline or dairies. But without both warmth and sunlight, the gas doesn’t form as well.

Take a look at the numbers for Sunday. Fresno’s three monitors never got above 70 parts per billion for ozone. The federal eight-hour standard is 75 parts per billion, and it’s officially an exceedance when the average hits 76.

Monday looks like a similar cloudy start to the day. I saw lightning over the Sierra. If the weather stays dark and unsettled, there may be another August day in the Valley without an exceedance of the ozone standard.