Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

Rim fire footprint would encompass Valley’s 5 largest cities

The Rim fire is winding down, now 92% contained at a cost of more than $125 million. But it’s the physical size of the fire that continues to capture the imagination — what does 257,135 acres look like?

Mono Lake, on the east side of the Sierra, has a footprint of 45,000 acres. Lake Tahoe is about 122,000 acres. That’s not a bad comparison if you’ve seen those lakes.

Fellow reporters have resorted to all kinds of comparisons. I recently heard a network news anchor refer to it as a third the size of Rhode Island. Others compare it to the area of Los Angeles or San Francisco.

So this is my attempt at putting the San Joaquin Valley into this picture. I wondered if the fire footprint was big enough to encompass the Valley’s major cities, including Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, Modesto and Visalia.

Yes, they would all fit within that footprint.

Bakersfield had the largest physical footprint I found. It is 146.6 square miles, according to the U.S. Census. Fresno, which has a bigger population than Bakersfield, is only 112.3 square miles.

The Rim fire is 402 square miles. And any way you look at it, this is the third largest fire on record in California.

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.

Real Estate: Lennar Homes building in northwest Fresno

(Submitted photo. Lennar’s next generation home, called the Camelot, at the homebuilder’s newest development, Elderberry on the Bluff Estates.)

Lennar Homes is continuing to grow in the Central Valley with the grand opening of a new development overlooking the San Joaquin River in northwest Fresno.

Elderberry on the Bluff Estates is a 139-home neighborhood at Herndon and Riverside avenues, next to the Riverside Golf Course.

The homes will range in size from 1,766 to 2,969 square feet with three to four bedrooms, two to three-and-a-half bathrooms and up to three bay garages. Eight floor plans are available.

The national builder will also introduce its new Next Generation home design, called the Camelot, at Elderberry, the company said.

The Next Gen two-story house includes a private suite on the ground floor with its own separate entrance, bedroom, kitchenette and full bathroom.

“As time passes, lifestyles can change and the Next Gen, the Home within a Home, floor plans make design history by offering a dual living layout that so many families want and need and are finally discovering courtesy of Lennar, said Susan Wilke, vice president of sales and marketing.

The grand opening will be held 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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.

Nothing simple about property buys for high-speed rail route

A conceptual view of a high-speed train running through the Valley.

Monday’s story about efforts by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to acquire property, and the resulting displacement of businesses along the route in the Fresno and Madera areas such as Angelo’s Drive In or Keith’s Automotive, struck a chord among readers who interrupted their Labor Day weekend to leave me phone messages and send a few emails.

It seems to underscore the complexity of the process involved in securing land for public works projects, including right of way for big ones like the controversial high-speed train project. There are two big factors at the heart of the issue:

  • People who own businesses, farms and homes in the path of the railroad route have not only invested their money, but their effort and their sweat, into something that stands to be swept away, if and when the project is built; and
  • They’re feeling a little pushed around by the process, and in some cases insulted by offers that don’t reflect what they believe their property and business is worth — that is, they don’t think it is what the lawyers call “just compensation.”

No wonder property owners, homeowners and affected businesses can find themselves confused and angry. But here’s some info that we weren’t able to work into Monday’s story.

The story reported that the rail authority has, as of last week, made more than 120 formal written offers to owners of land along the proposed railroad route in Fresno and Madera counties. Those written offers are based on appraisals done by consultants to the rail agency. You can see a copy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s parcel-by-parcel right of way plan here (warning: it’s a large file!). The right of way plan has been incorporated into the agency’s contract with Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, the contracting consortium hired to design and build the first 29-mile section of the system in Fresno and Madera. You can find an interactive, clickable map of parcels identified by the rail authority as those likely to be needed earliest (by the end of September) here.

When the authority makes a written offer to a property owner, it triggers a complex process in which “most property owners probably are not aware of what the law provides in terms of compensation for an impacted business owner,” said Anthony Leones, an eminent-domain attorney for Miller Star Regalia, a Bay Area law firm that prepared a newsletter about high-speed rail and land issues.

“What a business owner needs to do when they get an offer is, first of all, understand that the offer may not be inclusive of all their potential damages,” Leones said. “A business can be damaged in a lot of ways, even if they’re only taking a portion of the property. … For businesses, the situation is a lot more complex and they should understand that the initial offer is not a final offer, and they don’t have to accept it.”

Continue reading →

Proposed fix for Drinking Water Program fades behind political scene

The proposal to replace California Department of Public Health as guardian for the state’s drinking water quietly slipped away last week, dying in a committee. Assembly Bill 145 didn’t even come to a vote in the state Senate.

Drinking water advocates and many people living in small San Joaquin Valley towns are disappointed over the failure of the bill, which never came out of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Small-town residents must buy bottled water to replace tainted tap water.

AB 145, introduced by Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, would have moved the Drinking Water Program responsibilities to the State Water Resources Control Board, an enforcement agency that already deals with dirty water throughout the state.

The California Department of Public Health administers the program that is known in the Valley as a foot-dragging bureaucracy.

But the agency had support from larger California cities and the Association of California Water Agencies. The water association said the water program works well in many places and needed a more “targeted approach” to solve problems. Their opposition to AB 145 had been clear in the last few months.

Thousands of residents in poor Valley communities have suffered with tainted water as their towns waded through years of bureaucratic red tape at the department of public health.

For those residents, this was like another rebuff on a technicality, say advocates.

“This bill was a game-changer that would have had long-term benefits for communities that are ignored under the current system,” said Maria Herrera, community advocate for the Visalia-based Community Water Center.

Under the Department of Public Health, funding applications for feasibility studies take years. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanded a spending plan for $455 million of unused federal money entrusted to the department.

Public health officials responded with a spending plan, saying they are streamlining their efforts to move faster.

Rim fire: Pray the wind doesn’t shift

Pyrocumulus clouds rising above Groveland near the Rim fire.

So far, the Rim fire at Yosemite National Park’s western doorstep hasn’t smoked out the San Joaquin Valley. Pray the wind doesn’t shift.

If you’ve seen the photographs of the immense pyrocumulus clouds erupting over the Sierra, you know it’s a pretty intense wildfire.

I’ve talked with fire experts who say you can see the clouds for 100 miles in all directions.

Pyrocumulus clouds occur with the high heat of volcanoes and wildfires. They look like cauliflower, rising tens of thousands of feet high with ash and vapor.

This is the biggest fire on the Stanislaus National Forest in a generation, now approaching 180,000 acres. On Tuesday, it ranked as the seventh largest in recorded state history.

The ash has been riding the wind into places north of the fire, such as Reno and Sacramento. In Sacramento, the PM-2.5 — think soot — standard has been breached nine times this month. That’s more than Sacramento has seen in August for the last decade combined.

Meanwhile in the Valley, which sometimes is socked in with wildfire soot, there haven’t been any PM-2.5 breaches in the standard.  Keep an eye on the weather and the wind. This fire may hang around through September, I’m told.