There’s a column on these pages from a local libertarian, challenging the merits of the state’s air quality program. He raises good points, such as why restrict wood-burning in residential fireplaces and the like but allow people to sit in drive-thrus while waiting for their lunch or a specialty coffee?
I harken back to my days in the central San Joaquin Valley.
My first experience with the state’s Central Valley was after I graduated from Monterey High School and went to Fresno State. That was the early 1980s. I have distinct memories of being able to look east and see three ridges deep into the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, then turn around and see the coastal range hills to the west. It was beautiful.
That was during the winter months. By summer, the air would thicken with enough muck to partially obscure the mountains to the east and the western foothills. Fresno is nearly central to the valley, so both the Sierras and the coastal range were miles and miles off in the distance.
Fast-forward to current times. I have distinct memories of walking out of the newspaper office in Porterville, looking west and not being able to see the foothills. Porterville is located in southeastern Tulare County, nestled against the foothills leading into the Sierra Nevada. Drive 10 or 15 minutes from the newspaper’s parking lot and you could be 3,000 feet up into the mountains. Yet I couldn’t see those mountains, let alone the foothills, from Porterville.
A steady winter rain will clear the air for a few days, restoring the picturesque views from the valley floor.
The regional air district there has waged war on air pollution for as long as I can remember. Yes, they have Spare the Air days, many more than our record-tying 30 days thus far this winter. I was there when rules were put into place to ban wood-burning fireplaces from all new home construction. You read that correctly: Ban. New fast-food restaurants that include drive-thrus come under intense scrutiny. I was there when the air district studied ways to mitigate the methane that seeps from cow manure at the valley’s many dairies. (That’s true natural gas!). While that sounds funny, and made great news copy while it was taking place, the dairy farmers actually found a way to capture the methane and burn it to generate power.
I recall a 1994 study where the findings indicated that a sizable percentage of the air pollution in the Central Valley – 11 percent of Fresno’s summertime air pollution – came from the Bay Area. So our pollution in Fairfield was drifting west into the San Joaquin Valley, getting trapped in the inversion layer and moving down through my former home. The valley’s air district actually sued the California Air Resources Board in an attempt to stop this “drift.”
I should note that all pollution is not the same. In the summer months, it’s primarily ozone – smog – that’s the problem. Vehicle exhaust and other similar pollutants combine with high temperatures to choke the air. The winter’s pollution is primarily small particulate matter – fine dust – that we all inhale and that gets trapped in our lungs, leading to sometimes fatal consequences for those with weakened respiratory systems. That “dust” includes wood smoke, hence the focus during winter months on curbing wood-burning activities when the air quality begins to worsen.
The state’s various air districts operate under the state’s air resources board. Together they work to bring our air quality into compliance with federal health standards. The various regional boards – including our Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the nearby Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District, create local policies – such as Spare the Air during the summer and winter months – to help meet these federal objectives.
These efforts are working, based on information on smog and soot released this week by the California Air Resources Board. The gist is that the state’s air quality is significantly better now than it was a decade ago. But there’s work to be done. A third of the state’s population lives where air pollution still exceeds federal health standards. Those areas include parts of greater Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento and San Diego, as reported by The Associated Press.
My libertarian friend is correct: We do not elect people to serve on the various air quality boards. But we do elect the people who make the appointments, and we elect the people who make the federal health safety laws these districts are attempting to comply with.
To those who challenge the necessity of programs that promote better air quality, such as the Winter Spare the Air program in our area, I say, go ahead and vote the bums out. Then sit back and watch as our state’s air becomes a kind of soup that kills.
I, for one, opt for blue skies and fresh air – to the greatest extent possible.
Reach Managing Editor Glen Faison at 427-6925 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GlenFaison.