Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Strangely, few ozone problems in early August

Downtown Fresno smog in August a few years ago.

Between 2003 and 2006, the San Joaquin Valley was nearly wall-to-wall with bad-air days each August. Only six August days in those years didn’t breach the ozone standard.

This August, there already have been six good days, and the month isn’t even two weeks old. For me, it’s even a little eerie to see days like Thursday when the highest ozone reading was about what I’d expect on a warm, sunny April day.

The temperature has dropped into the 90s and that helps, because ozone forms better on hot, sunny days. But there were plenty of August days in the 90s back in 2003 or 2004 when ozone exceeded the standard.

Meteorologists have told me the air overhead is moving and mixing a lot this month. Ozone forms best on hot, sunny days that are stagnant, so maybe the air movement is helping.

Last August, there were only five days without exceedances. In 2011, there were only two. To me, the break this year just seems odd.

But don’t be lulled. August and early September can turn brutally hot and stagnant. And with school back in session and more vehicles on the road producing ozone-making gases, the air can turn corrosive quickly.

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.

Update: Silver lining in that cloud of smog

Update Tuesday, June 11:

The highest ozone peak in June so far has been in Sequoia National Park as dirty air has appeared over most of the San Joaquin Valley in hot, stagnant conditions. It happened Saturday afternoon.

The eight-hour federal ozone standard was exceeded for the first nine days of June, but there are two good pieces of news.

One, the ozone siege has backed off as the weather has cooled down.

And, two, the air didn’t exceed the one-hour federal ozone standard, which is connected to a $29 million annual dirty-air fine. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District says there has been dramatic improvement over the last several years for that standard.

The Valley can end the $29 million penalty in the next season or so if the one-hour peaks remain below the federal threshold.

This summer, the district will continue education and alerts to encourage air-friendly behavior — such as refraining from idling when dropping off or picking up students.

This Valley tends to overload with ozone in hot, stagnant conditions. Chemicals from such sources as traffic and gasoline fumes cook into ozone. In those conditions, this region was an ozone oven for the first week of June.

How many days has the Valley exceeded the stricter, eight-hour federal standard and how does it compare to 2012? The California Air Resources Board web site shows 23 days this year, 17 at this point last year.

Parlier has highest ozone reading

Parlier, a city of about 12,000 in Fresno County, had the highest ozone peak over the last week or so, but dirty air has appeared over most of the San Joaquin Valley.

In hot, stagnant conditions, chemicals from such sources as traffic and gasoline fumes cook into ozone. The Valley was an ozone oven for the first week of June.

The Parlier peak was interesting because it happened between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on a Sunday. When a small town gets the Valley’s highest peak, I think about a huge plume of dirty air floating in from Fresno after rush-hour commute.

Was there a morning plume of pollutants from folks driving to church in Fresno and Clovis on that Sunday? Was there some kind of malfunction in the Parlier monitor?

I don’t know, but you can see the hourly readings climbed very early in the day. At 7 a.m., Parlier was already exceeding the federal eight-hour ozone threshold.

Elsewhere in the Valley, most monitors detected a bad-air buildup, but there were exceptions. Tracy, Modesto and Stockton didn’t exceed the threshold. Neither did Visalia.

How many days has the Valley exceeded the standard and how does it compare to 2012? The California Air Resources Board web site shows 20 days this year, 17 at this point last year.

Get your summer ozone game on

Ozone season came back with a vengeance in early June as temperatures spiked over the very warm weekend. Get your summer game on — avoid the afternoon peaks.

A breezy May left the San Joaquin Valley with only eight days when the ozone exceeded the federal standard.  It’s easy to forget about air quality in those conditions. Now the heat and ozone are here.

Over the weekend, the problem areas for ozone included Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield, Hanford, Arvin, Porterville and Sequoia National Park.

Ozone is a corrosive gas that forms in warm, stagnant weather. It attacks the skin, eyes and lungs.

Even for healthy adults, it’s not a good idea to exercise in the late afternoons when this stuff peaks. If you have small children, try to keep them inside on the bad days.

How will you know when there’s a bad day ahead? Check with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District for daily forecasts.

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.

Beautiful San Luis Obispo drops out of ranking among 10-worst smog traps

The American Lung Association says air quality has improved in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. The ozone pollution is no longer among the 10 worst in the country. That’s a step toward reality in the Lung Association’s latest rankings.

San Luis Obispo is tied for 25th now with Tulsa and St. Louis. It’s more appropriate so this is no criticism of the Lung Association, but I’m still mystified. And it has nothing to do with the rankings.

The reason, I think, is the huge difference between places like Hanford and San Luis Obispo, both of which were mentioned in the same sentence as improving.

Here’s what I mean: The last time San Luis Obispo breached the federal eight-hour standard was 2008. Meanwhile, Hanford’s ozone concentration rose above the federal standard eight times just in 2012.

As I said, this is no criticism of the Lung Association, which has a far more complex way of figuring its rankings than the number of times the ozone exceeds the standard. And San Luis Obispo has been bounced all the way down to the bottom of the list.

But it’s just weird to even be talking about improving air quality in a metropolitan area where the ozone standard is exceeded once or twice in a decade.

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.

First March ozone violations since 2007

The ozone standard has been breached twice this week in the San Joaquin Valley — both in Maricopa at the southwest end of Kern County. They are the first March violations since 2007.

The late-winter warm spell gets the blame. At the same time, it’s worth mentioning that the usual suspects — Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield and Sequoia National Park — are not spiking ozone problems.

The point is that it’s hard to escape ozone problems in the 25,000-square-mile San Joaquin Valley when nature switches on the heat.

The Valley’s run of five years without a March violation is memorable if only because such early season problems were pretty common a few years ago.

March violations happened in every year between 2001 and 2004. And there were nine violations in 2004.

Those were the bad old days of ozone here. The Valley averaged 155 violations over that span. From 2008 to 2012, the average was 105.

The goal in cleaning up the Valley’s air is zero violations. Last year, the Valley had 105 violations. But the first one didn’t happen until the third week in April.

Bad air in Houston, Phoenix? Not compared to Valley

The phone conversation started with a question: Which city has worse ozone — Fresno or Bakersfield?

It’s a good question, but I told the reader that we have this conversation far too often around here. It’s like debating the difference between drowning in 15 feet of water and 17 feet of water.

Fresno? Bakersfield? They’re both among the worst in the country.

I think it’s more interesting to compare the Valley with cities outside of California that have a national reputation for dirty air — like Houston and Phoenix. The pollution in Fresno, Bakersfield and other Valley cities is far worse than in cities several times larger.

Look at 2012 violations of the federal eight-hour ozone standard. Phoenix has 1.46 million people, according to the U.S. Census, and the city recorded 30 violations. Houston with a population of 2.1 million had 35.

How many Valley locations had more violations? Clovis, Fresno, Parlier, Arvin, Bakersfield, Oildale, Edison, Porterville and, oddly enough, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

In fact, Houston and Phoenix combined didn’t have as many as the Ash Mountain site in Sequoia National Park, which recorded 82 violations. Parlier with a population of about 15,000 in Fresno County had 60. In Southern California, Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains led the nation with 88.

Back to Bakersfield and Fresno.

In Fresno with population of about a half million, there were 51 violations last year at one monitoring site. In Bakersfield, population 352,000, one monitor showed 56.

Compared to the rest of the country, the Valley is really in another universe. Fresno and Bakersfield are just part of a bigger picture here.

Double whammy of pollution hits Valley’s air

The double whammy hit the San Joaquin Valley on election day with violations of both the ozone and the particle pollution standards.

And it’s still a little tough to breathe this morning, as the photograph shows. I climbed a few flights of stairs and took this shot from the roof of The Fresno Bee.

If you check the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District web page, you’ll find it’s a no-burn day for folks in four counties. That means no wood burning in fireplaces and fireplace inserts.

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.