Air quality is a tremendous problem in the San Joaquin Valley. Our air is consistently ranked the worst in the nation, alongside the Los Angeles area, and it’s been linked in Valley residents to immune problems, emergency room visits and even premature death. It’s an old problem, but local officials have put forth a bold new solution.
If it were winter, you could turn to the east from almost anywhere in the San Joaquin Valley and admire the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
But it’s summertime. The Sierra looks different. And Dolores Weller of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition says, it’s not just because the snow is melting.
"You really cannot see the mountains,” she says, shielding her eyes near the intersection of Shaw and Fruit avenues in Fresno. “They are not visible on days like this when we have high ozone, high smog. They are completely blocked.”
Ozone. Smog. Particle pollution. They’re all endemic to this area.
“I think we’d have a view of our beautiful mountains year-round if we implemented some strict measures for our valley,” Weller continues. “And it’s not just about the view; it’s also for our health.”
Strict measures are going to be necessary to clean up our air. But officials haven’t really agreed on what those measures should be. Advocates like Weller urge our air district to crack down on pollution from Valley businesses. And to a certain extent it has—air quality has generally been improving. But federal standards recently got tighter, and Seyed Sadredin of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District says it’s time to think bigger.
“To really get any meaningful reductions in emissions,” says Sadredin, “we need to reduce pollution from…trucks and locomotives. And unfortunately the only agency that can really do that is the federal EPA.”
That’s right: he’s asking the feds for help.
The Valley’s in a tight spot because it has to make huge reductions in ozone and particle pollution within the next 15 years—or else we face hefty fines, loss of highway funding, and penalties for local businesses.
But our pollution isn’t entirely our fault. According to the air district, the majority of the nasty stuff stagnating in Valley air comes from diesel trucks and trains—which are under federal jurisdiction. So the air district sent the EPA a petition asking it to significantly tighten emissions standards for heavy duty trucks and locomotives.
“If we can reduce that, let's say by 90%, with these measures that we're suggesting,” he says, “it'll basically cut down our pollution in the San Joaquin Valley by half.”
The petition is a bold move; the EPA doesn’t usually get involved locally. The agency sets national standards for pollutants, then it lets local air districts figure out how to meet them. But Sadredin argues the Valley has done literally all it can.
“We've basically put in place all the low hanging fruit, medium hanging fruit, high hanging fruit, and really at this point, there is no way to get there without them doing something,” he says.
But is that really true? Not really, says Anthony Wexler. He’s director of the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center. From a scientific perspective, stricter regulations for trucks and trains would make a difference here. But he says it’s wrong to claim the Valley has done all it can.
“There are also other emissions in the San Joaquin Valley that are related to agriculture,” Wexler says, like “diesel water pumps, emissions from silage related to dairy operations for feeding cows. And that silage and those pumps are all emitting a lot of pollution also.”
Really, he says, the air district is motivated by more than science. Industries like agriculture and petroleum are powerful, and the pressure they exert is not always in line with health.
“So the staff in the district are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he says. “The problem is that individuals who’re living in the San Joaquin Valley benefit from improved air quality and businesses are bearing the cost of meeting these air quality regulations. And so the industry is going to fight this as much as they can.”
Of the air district’s 15 board members, only two are not county supervisors, mayors, or city council members. Here’s advocate Dolores Weller again.
“It his highly politicized, and some measures that the air district staff could propose would not be the most popular to board members. So, unfortunately that's our political climate.”
So would the feds really agree to national, sweeping changes in truck emissions standards? The EPA wouldn’t comment on this story—but it’s doubtful. Which means air officials will have to work harder here at home. And for that, Wexler and Weller are ready with a long list of suggestions.