Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

Battle over Kettleman Hills landfill expansion continues

On Wednesday night, the tug of war continued over the proposed expansion of the Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill near Interstate 5.

Activists protested at the California Department of Toxic Substance Control’s open house in Kettleman City. Among their complaints: Six people failed to get notification of the state’s proposal to allow expansion of the landfill.

As a result, state leaders extended the comment deadline from Sept. 4 to Oct. 7. But the Toxic Substance Control leaders said they had gone above and beyond the legal notification requirements.

The state agency said more than 630 people were notified, but six people who had asked for email notification apparently did not receive it. Officials said they agreed to the deadline extension because people had raised the issue.

Activists criticized Toxic Substance Control, including complaints about the agency not fully explaining past violations linked to the landfill. The activists, led by the People for Clean Air and Water and Greenaction, have said they will sue to stop the expansion.

The fight over the project heated up in 2008 after a tragic series of birth defects was discovered. Activists blamed the defects on “a toxic environment” surrounding Kettleman City.

Over the last few years, state and federal investigators conducted a thorough analysis and say they found no cause, adding there is no connection to the landfill.

Toxic Substance Control leaders say their study process on the issue was the most exhaustive in the agency’s history.

The agency has scheduled a public hearing in Kettleman City on Aug. 27.

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.

Valley rural water problems are clear in state report

Deep in a state report on dirty drinking water, an important and revealing statistic went unnoticed by the media last week.

Of the 772,883 Californians relying solely on compromised groundwater, about 400,000 are in the San Joaquin Valley.

We’re talking about water systems that have violated standards, leaving people with no option except buying bottled drinking water during those times. About half of the people suffering this problem in California are right here in the Valley.

The report was done for the legislators by the State Water Resources Control Board as part of Assembly Bill 2222, which required the water board to look at statewide problems and assess the financial resources to help fix them.

The  report looks at all of California, but the Valley is in a spotlight here.

Naturally occurring arsenic was the biggest offender among the contaminants. But nitrates — attributable to activities by people — was second.

The Valley has a widespread problem with nitrates, which a University of California study last year traced to fertilizers and animal waste in agriculture.

In Kern County alone, there were 55 violations of water standards between 2002 and 2010 — the highest number in the state.

Tulare County followed with 31. Madera County had 22, Fresno County 15 and Stanislaus County 14. Very few other counties in California even had 10 violations.

Here’s another telling point that nobody reported.

“There are 89 community water systems in Los Angeles County that serve approximately 8.4 million people. However, only 11 percent of that population is solely reliant on a contaminated groundwater source.

“In contrast, Tulare County has 41 community water systems that rely on contaminated groundwater source that serve approximately 205,000 people. Sole reliance on groundwater for these communities stands at 99 percent.”

I’m looking at the percentages here, not the raw numbers. Southern California has larger numbers, but it also attracts more money to fix the problem. Dirty water is cleaned up.

As I mentioned earlier, the Valley has more people drinking water from a system with actual violations.

How are the problems being addressed? The report said some water systems were not receiving or even actively seeking money — most of them in the Valley. They are in Kern, Stanislaus, Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin and Tulare counties.