Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Watch this air quality lawsuit in the San Joaquin Valley

Environmental watchdogs filed suit last week to stop that $12 dirty-air fee now attached to your vehicle registration each year.  Keep your eye on this one, folks.

It’s all about that $30 million ozone fine that the San Joaquin Valley pays each year for missing a cleanup deadline.

This lawsuit hits at the heart of who pollutes and who pays in the Valley — where there have been more ozone violations in the last 12 years than any other place in the country. The fine is for failing to achieve an old ozone standard.

The lawsuit says the fine has been illegally shifted from major industries to residents, but local air authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency don’t see it quite that way.

The federal suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Latinos United for Clean Air, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club.

By law, the federal fine for missing the cleanup deadline in 2010 is supposed to be pointed at major industries, Earthjustice says. The EPA violated the Clean Air Act when it allowed local air leaders to waive the fine for many of these industries, the suit says.

But local air authorities say industries already have spent $40 billion over the last several decades and reduced pollution dramatically. Now, they say, it’s time for motorists, who help create the pollution, to pay a little more, too.

There are a host of arguments on both sides about who pollutes more and how the cost should be split up. I’ll let readers trot out the numbers and the arguments.

I’ll conclude by answering the one question that is asked every time I bring up this $30 million penalty.

Where does the money go? It goes into the Valley’s pool of pollution-reduction  funding. It’s used, for instance, to help replace dirty diesel engines in the Valley.