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.

Confusing air standards will save lives

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.

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.