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.

Oilfield drilling muds, boring waste go into unlined pits

Readers were surprised to learn from my Sunday story that oil companies are allowed to send their drilling muds and boring waste into unlined pits.

They do it with a waiver that was granted several years ago. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board does not view the muds and waste as a hazardous discharge.

But the waiver will expire next month. Environmental groups are pressing the state to end the waiver and require more protection for the underground water table.

My Sunday story was not about the muds or boring wastes. It was about a separate and controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing,  or fracking, which includes the use of chemicals to help free up oil trapped in shale formations.

Fracking fluids were illegally discharged into two of those unlined pits, called sumps. Regional water authorities found the chemicals in concentrations above safe thresholds.

The regional board is now investigating the sumps of several dozen oil companies in the San Joaquin Valley.

The concern is that the contamination might wind up in drinking water systems and irrigation water.

The contaminated sumps are both near Shafter in Kern County, which produces most of the oil in the Valley and in the state. The sumps and wells are owned by Vintage Production, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp.

To be abundantly clear: The drilling muds and boring waste are not part of fracking, which takes place after the well is drilled. The muds and boring waste have long been considered a low threat.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the muds and wastes themselves contain many kinds of chemicals to help reduce friction and make the drilling more efficient. Some chemicals are related to gas and diesel.

The group, representing many activists, says the time has come to regulate it.

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.

Last year, we were talking about snow in the Sierra

In the midst of this balmy, October weather, I sneaked a look at the weather a year ago. I saw an archived item about a local storm report — talking about snow in the Sierra Nevada. There were reports of heavy snow in the mountains of Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties.

Earlier in the month last year, there was an item about record heat. It was a good reminder of how quickly things can change in October.

No one has complained to me about temperatures in the 80s during the day and 50s at night. Air quality has been pretty good, too.

But if the nice weather continues into November, people will begin to get nervous about a third consecutive dry winter in Central California.

Fresno fracking opponents join worldwide protest

Fresno fracking opponents demonstrated last weekend as part of “Global Frackdown2,” a worldwide effort to oppose injecting chemical-laden water into the ground to open up oil-bearing rocks.

The opposition is stirred by fears of drinking water contamination and overburdening existing water supply.

The demonstration was led by Fresnans Against Fracking. The group, like many other opposition organizations, wants to see a moratorium on fracking — a shorthand name for hydraulic fracturing.

The local group is asking for the Fresno City Council and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance to enforce a moratorium.

In the San Joaquin Valley, this is no small issue.

Along the western edge of the Valley, there are deep shale rock formations that hold an estimated 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

That is an attractive prospect to local leaders. Many thousands of jobs could be created, and there would be a tax bonanza.

Many public officials are courting the idea, but environmentalists have been hammering it. They say the practice needs to be thoroughly studied first.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 4, the first fracking law in California. It requires oil companies to obtain permits for fracking as well as acidizing, the use of hydrofluoric acid and other chemicals to dissolve shale rock.

It also requires notification of neighbors, public disclosure of the chemicals used, as well as groundwater and air quality monitoring and an independent scientific study.

Neither side of the debate likes the law. The oil industry opposed the bill, saying it goes to far in regulating their work. Environmentalists generally opposed it as well, saying it is not nearly protective enough.

In Fresno, Gary Lasky, president of Fresnans Against Fracking, says there is not enough known yet about the impacts to the water and air. He said the groundwater and air should be protected before fracking is allowed.

Fight for west-side water on display this week

West San Joaquin Valley water battles are leaping onto the big screen and into the sports world this week — both under the heading of “The fight for water.”

On Thursday, Olympic boxer Jose Ramirez, who is from the west-side community of Avenal, will talk about his first professional fight in the Valley, on Nov. 9 at West Hills College in Lemoore.

He is expected to say he wants it to make a statement about the hardship of west-side farm water shortages, calling it “The fight for water.” His news conference is scheduled at noon Thursday in the Sierra Athletic Club.

On Saturday, an award-winning documentary, “The fight for water: a farm worker struggle,” will screen at 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Fresno.

The film, produced by Juan Carlos Oseguera, features a 2009 water march by growers and farm workers.  The Latino Water Coalition is a central player in the march.

Kettleman landfill comment deadline extended again

The state still is poised to issue a permit allowing expansion of the hazardous waste landfill near Kettleman City — a holding pattern that started in August.  But the official process has been extended again.

You might remember the state Department of Toxic Substances Control extended its public comment deadline from Sept. 4 to Oct. 11. on the landfill expansion plan. Last week, leaders extended it again to Oct. 25.

The latest extension came after two members of the environmental community requested it. The two are Ingrid Brostrom of The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and Bradley Angel of Greenaction, state leaders said.

Environmental justice advocates have fought desperately to stop this expansion, especially since the flow of hazardous waste has dwindled to a trickle. The landfill is nearly at capacity.

But Kettleman City stands to gain from the expansion of the landfill, say its supporters, including Kings County leaders.

The expansion will result in the landfill owner, Waste Management Inc., paying off a large debt owed by the town’s water system, so a new water treatment system can be built. Kettleman’s water is tainted by arsenic.

Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill near Interstate 5.

At the same time, there are good reasons for the state to cautiously approach this expansion. The Kettleman Hills landfill has long been painted as a villain — the West’s largest hazardous waste landfill at the doorstep of a small, Latino community.

Among some in Kettleman City, along Interstate 5 in Kings County, the landfill is a raw nerve. They blame a toxic environment for a rash of tragic birth defects a few years ago.

Plus, the state considers Kettleman City among the environmentally riskiest places to live in California.

Now an additional voice of opposition to expansion is coming from the Legislature. Last week, Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, sent a letter to the Toxics Substance Control agency, asking leaders to reject the expansion plan.

He said, “The people who live in Kettleman City have suffered enough and done their share since the disposal site was opened in 1975.”

Banks working with furloughed federal employees to defer loan, mortgage payments

Bank of the West is giving furloughed federal employees a break on paying their loans and mortgages.

The bank, which has five offices in Fresno, is granting one month deferrals on consumer loan payments and one month forbearance on mortgage payments.

“We are committed to helping our customers succeed financially through the ups and downs of life,” said Paul Wible, head of the bank’s National Finance Group.

Bank customers with auto, recreational vehicle and boat loans, credit cards and home equity loans and lines of credit can call (800) 653-0362 to request help.

Other banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo are working with customers on a case-by-case basis.

“Federal government employees and other workers whose jobs are directly impacted by the government shutdown may be eligible for forbearance programs or other mortgage payment assistance depending on their individual circumstances,” a Wells Fargo spokeswoman said.

Wells Fargo and Bank of America customers, who are furloughed federal employees, are encouraged to contact their banks to work on a solution.

Town hall planned to talk about small-town drinking water

The public is invited to a town hall meeting about drinking water problems in small San Joaquin Valley communities where thousands of people have waited years for solutions.

The free event is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at  Fresno Convention Center, 2nd Floor, 848 M St. Latino USA on National Public Radio and Radio Bilingue are putting on the town hall.

Maria Hinojosa,  journalist and Latino USA executive producer, will moderate. Spanish translation will be available.

The town hall will feature a discussion of Lanare, a small Fresno County town with a history of water problems. Organizers say the discussion will focus on ways to speed up the process of getting healthy drinking water.

Veronica Garibay, co-director of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, will speak at the event. She said the contamination of well water is expanding.

“We should have been doing something about this yesterday,” she said.

Speakers also will include John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, California State University, Fresno;  Susana De Anda, co-executive director of the Community Water Center in Visalia; Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, and Isabel Solorio, president of Lanare United in Lanare.

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.