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Smog Check: Central Valley Congressmen Refuse to Clear the Air

Both ozone and particulate pollution are attributed to oil and gas production, agribusiness, mega-dairies, power generation, heavy equipment and truck traffic – many of the Central Valley’s major businesses.

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Bend in the River: The view from Bakersfield's Panorama Bluffs. (Photos by Dean Kuipers)

According to the American Lung Association, Bakersfield has some of the worst air in the country with regard to the two principal ingredients that make smog.


 

When you stand on Bakersfield’s Panorama Bluffs, the Central Valley’s chronic air quality problems hit you right in the face. A thick, blue-gray aerial sauce lays over the Kern River below and the massive, 9,000-well oilfield to the north, a smog that sweeps up the bluff. The haze smells of oil and cow manure and stings the eyes.

On the day I visited, the Environmental Protection Agency warned residents that the air was “Unsafe for Sensitive Groups” like children and the elderly, who were advised to limit outdoor activity. Unfortunately, these EPA “action days” are the new normal here. According to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2017” report, Bakersfield has some of the worst air in the country with regard to the two principal ingredients that make smog. The city ranks Number One for short-term spikes in fine particle pollution, or PM2.5, and Number Two for ozone (after Los Angeles).

Ozone forms in the atmosphere as the combination of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that mix in the presence of sunlight. PM2.5 is a tiny particle produced by diesel engines and wood-burning, and by the conversion of NOx and sulfur dioxides, among other chemicals, into particles. Both are dangerous to health and contribute to asthma, lung disease and other ailments.

“It’s like this most days,” said Debbie Saltello, 50, who was walking from Bakersfield College, which sits at the top of the bluffs directly south of the oilfields. “That’s why we’re always sick. People really want to do something about this, and we need to be fighting for cleaner air. But each of us only has time to do so much.”

Saltello felt like she needed to do something, because her representative in Congress was voting the other way. In 2017, congressmen whose districts lie in the Central Valley voted for a little-known new bill, the Ozone Standards Implementation Act, or HR 806, which critics say guts the EPA’s ability to set healthy ozone and particulate-matter standards, and delays the implementation of clean-air solutions.

The bill, which passed the House and is now in the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee as S263, delays the implementation of 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards until October 2024, and permanently changes the EPA’s air quality review from a five-year to a 10-year cycle. More important, the proposed measure allows the EPA to consider “technological feasibility” when the agency sets these standards. Currently, the EPA must set standards “requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety,” even if those goals are hard to attain, thus challenging districts and industry to innovate.

Republicans in this conservative swath of the state supported the bill, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Devin Nunes of Visalia, Jeff Denham of Modesto and David Valadao of Hanford. It was a mostly partisan vote, with only 11 Republicans voting against the bill and only four Democrats voting for it. One Democrat, however, was Jim Costa, whose Fresno district – along with Bakersfield, Visalia, Modesto and Hanford – is routinely among the Top Six worst cities in the U.S. for year-round PM2.5 spikes and ozone.

Costa, Nunes, Denham, Valadao and McCarthy declined to be interviewed for this story, but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pete Olson of Sugar Land, Texas – a Houston  suburb that is also a center for oil and gas production and has its own claims on having the nation’s most polluted air – said his bill was necessary because the EPA was creating red-tape bottlenecks, and he wanted to see fewer communities struggle with the fines and penalties for being in “non-attainment” of the standards. The 2015 NAAQS, which are the latest released, were met by a barrage of litigation and President Trump’s EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, created a task force to explore ways to ease compliance.

“In recent years, we have seen the Environmental Protection Agency’s inability to issue rulemakings and guidance in a timely way on air quality standards,” said Olson in an email interview. “Communities are left with uncertainty and a lack of implementation guidance, while job creators and local businesses are left dealing with the regulatory difficulties of trying to expand in a ‘non-attainment’ area.” Further, Olson claimed, districts were punished for air pollution that might not be their fault. “We have seen significant issues with how the EPA handles emissions outside the control of localities. The State of Texas has spent years struggling to avoid being penalized for pollution caused by natural events like forest fires. It is also worth noting that a significant portion of pollution in the Western U.S. is either naturally occurring or comes from as far away as China.”

Olson denied that his bill will hurt health standards.

Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association, said the bill was driven by the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and other groups that lobby on behalf of big polluters.

“Oh, you mean the Smoggy Skies Act?” Billings asked in reply to a question about the legislation. “This bill is really designed to repeal the fundamental health premise of the Clean Air Act, or, I would say, rip the lungs out of that law. Currently, the standards are based on the health science: ‘Requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety.’ In this legislation, they impose a technological feasibility test. Not having doctors and scientists tell us what levels harm health, but to allow engineers and economists to discuss whether or not it is feasible to meet these standards. This is kind of like diagnosing a patient by what it will cost to cure the patient, rather than by what ails the patient.”

In their published dissent, House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats called the bill a “compilation of attacks that in reality strikes at the heart of the CAA [Clean Air Act],” adding: “This bill would undermine decades of progress on cleaning up air pollution and protecting public health from all criteria pollutants – not just ozone.”

Bakersfield’s Rep. McCarthy, who sponsored versions of this bill for years, provided a statement to Capital & Main, which reads in part: “…the Obama Administration’s regulation [meaning the 2015 NAAQS] will saddle our communities with punitive fines for failing to meet a near-impossible task of complying with a standard so unrealistic it is approaching naturally occurring background ozone levels…. This bill makes the right reforms, without sacrificing air quality that will help our communities be healthy and thrive.”

The Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2017” report notes that air quality has been getting progressively better throughout the country since the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, even as it remains unhealthful: Los Angeles still has the nation’s worst ozone problem, but the numbers have been steadily improving. But that has required increasingly more stringent quality standards.

Dolores Barajas-Weller, director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, a clean-air advocacy group, says the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has resisted clean-air strategies proposed by her group. The district’s executive director, Seyed Sadredin, is well-known for wanting to soften the very law he’s supposed to uphold: He submitted a white paper on that subject to the Trump transition team, and testified in support of HR 806 in committee hearings, while the California Air Resources Board and many other agencies in charge of air quality opposed the bill.

“[The District] say they’ve left it all on the table, but they haven’t,” Barajas-Weller said.

Wood-burning and the widespread charbroiling of restaurant foods, for example, could be more strictly regulated, she said, and agricultural burning could be replaced by offering incentives to growers in the valley to chip, mulch and compost their waste. Similarly, the waste water that is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction is a major source of VOCs and needs addressing. Farm equipment can be transitioned from diesel to clean energy. And biomass energy facilities need to be more strictly controlled.

“The Rio Bravo biomass facility here in Fresno is the top PM2.5 source for the entire county, and it’s located in one of the poorest unincorporated communities,” said Barajas-Weller. “The governor signed a five-year bill to bring in all of the forests affected by the tree mortality issues, trucking them down on diesel trucks and burning them in a disadvantaged community.”

“With respect to particulate matter and ozone, it’s very disheartening that the congressional Republicans, now that they’re in power, are working tirelessly to gut to protections in the Clean Air Act,” said José Gurrola, mayor of the Kern County town of Arvin, located just south of Bakersfield. “Here in Kern County, we saw over the holidays a period of about 10 days where particulate-matter pollution was so bad that we hadn’t seen that kind of pollution since the 1990s.”

Gurrola, who was elected in 2016 on an environmental platform, sees vast opportunity for the valley in the process of air cleanup. He wants smart growth, mass transit, tractors and oilfield equipment running off clean energy, and subsidies for electric vehicles targeted directly to the Central Valley.

“Rather than weaken the standards of the Clean Air Act,” Gurrola said, “I think that [Congress] should provide more resources to the Valley Air District, to provide more incentives for both industry and the community to work together to improve the air.”


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