Valley Residents, Health Advocates Call For Better Protection From Particle Pollution

Jan 29, 2013

The Fresno skyline as seen through a thick cloud of pollution (file photo)
Credit Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio

The San Joaquin Valley’s polluted air is a daily concern for Mario Talavera.

“When I go to the pharmacy, they ask why I need medicine," said Talavera, of Fresno. "For Mario, Angelica, Tomas, Jose. And for me too, Mario. I have asthma. The only person who doesn’t have asthma is my wife.”

It’s a constant stress for Fresno resident Teresa Vidales, too. Her husband, a construction worker and the family breadwinner, has asthma. One of her four kids does, too.

“He is the only one in the house that works. I worry that if he gets sicker, what am I going to do?” Vidales wondered.

Talavera and Vidales are members of Latinos United for Clean Air, a Fresno-based community group. Last Thursday morning in Bakersfield, they shared their families’ stories with members of the California Air Resources Board. They urged the board members to turn down the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s plan to meet a federal air quality standard. They said it didn’t move fast enough to reduce air pollution, or go far enough to protect community health.

“In reality, we have had some victories, but like I said during my testimony, it’s at a tortoise pace," Talavera said after the meeting. "The efforts to reduce pollution go at the speed of a tortoise, and the pollution, the sources of pollution, move at the speed of a hare.”

In the end, the board voted unanimously to approve the plan. But some board members said more needs to be done – and faster - to clean up the region’s air. Valley cities like Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia consistently top the American Lung Association’s annual “Most Polluted Cities” list.

“The plan provides significant improvements in air quality, and we need to grab what we can grab," said Dr. Alexander Sherriffs, the Valley’s representative on the state air board, and a family physician in Fowler. "This is clearly going to lead to definite health benefits, both to individuals and communities, but it is never fast enough.”

The plan in question is intended to bring the Valley’s levels of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, into compliance with federal regulations. Particulate matter is made up of a number of components, like metals, soil or dust particles, and allergens, like fragments of pollen or mold spores.  According to the EPA, PM 2.5 describes particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter and 1/30th the diameter of a human hair. These fine particles can aggravate heart and lung diseases, and have been linked to heart attacks and asthma attacks.

To a regular person like me or you, understanding the plan, and how it’s going to work, is like trying to see the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter: it’s practically impossible. So I went to an expert who could explain the region’s air quality problems, and how the plan will solve them.

“What is true about our air quality challenges in the San Joaquin Valley – there is no other region that faces the same degree of difficulty and the same high levels of air pollution that we face in the San Joaquin Valley," said Seyed Sadredin, the executive director of the Valley air district. "And a big part of that is because of our geography, topography, climate conditions – basically a bowl with a lid on top of it - our challenges are very tough.”

“This particular plan was aimed at meeting and satisfying the PM 2.5 standard that EPA published in 2006," Sadredin continued. "What is in this plan is a collection of some of the rules that were recently adopted to meet some of the other requirements in the federal Clean Air Act, and a few new ones that we thought we needed to meet this particular standard sooner.” 

But what does this mean for the daily lives of Valley residents? Will Barrett, policy manager with the American Lung Association in California, explained that the Valley air district aims to reduce fine particulate pollution by further limiting when residents can light up their fireplaces.

“So on days where the weather is going to trap smoke and wood smoke close to the ground, where it does the most damage to people’s health, there will be more days where the Valley will identify when it’s not healthy to use the fireplace in your neighborhoods," Barrett said. "So you don’t want to have lots of that wood smoke stuck around in the neighborhoods where it can really affect people’s health, especially people with respiratory illnesses like asthma, and other lung and heart diseases, that are affected by fine particulate pollution.”

The Valley air district aims to amend the fireplace rules in the coming year, with the goal of implementing the new rules by the 2014-2015 winter season. Under the new rules, district officials predict the number of so-called “no burn” days will significantly increase throughout the Valley. But they expect households with EPA-certified stoves will have more flexibility.

And here’s the big question. Will this plan make a difference for the families of Mario Talavera, or Teresa Vidales, or the 17 percent of Valley residents suffering from asthma? I threw that question to Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Delano-based Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.

“So based on the Air District projections, we’re going to have to wait until 2017 in 90 percent of the Valley to have healthy air, and we’re going to have to wait until 2019 for the Bakersfield area to have healthy air, as far as particulate matter,” Farrell said.

It will take several years for this plan to successfully reduce the amount of particulate matter in the Valley’s air. And even then, Farrell stressed, residents will still be contending with other pollutants, too.

“There’s still ozone, there’s still other contaminants, greenhouse gases, methane – these things that are not being death with as part of this plan, so this is only a small segment of the burden that everyone’s carrying," she said. "It’s an important segment, because it’s ultrafine, and has the most immediate health consequences, but it’s one part of many parts of a pollution picture that we have here in the Valley.”

During last Thursday’s meeting, members of the state air board also addressed this quandary: That even if the plan leads to reductions in PM 2.5, Valley residents will still face other health threats due to the dirty air.

Mary Nichols is the chairman of the state air board. She emphasized that there’s a difference between meeting regional clean air standards, and ensuring that Valley residents – especially those living near roadways – breathe clean air on a daily basis.

“But what the testimony today here really reminded me of was the fact that even if we’re to meet the standards, we need to be doing more in those parts of the state where people are exposed to the worst pollution, particularly as we’ve been told time and time again, this tends to be correlated heavily with being in a low-income community, being isolated, racial minorities, ethnic minorities and so forth" Nichols said.

She said she’s optimistic that recent legislation – passed as part of AB 32, the state’s cap and trade program – will direct some money towards reducing pollution in disadvantaged communities. 

"We need to be directing more attention and more resources to be helping to improve overall exposures in those communities,” she said.

Or, as Will Barrett of the American Lung Association put it simply: “We all want to see clean air yesterday.”

The state air board will bring the plan to the U.S. EPA for final approval.