Group hopes to breathe in fresh ideas on cleaning air

A meeting in Merced on Wednesday is set to discuss the future of a resource everyone needs -- air.

Can we have clean air in the San Joaquin Valley before 2024? What more can the California Air Resources Board do to speed up this goal?

These questions on Wednesday won't be directed toward the usual vocal citizens -- environmental experts and outreach groups. This meeting is meant for everyday folks with questions, concerns and, hopefully, ideas, said Patricia Rey, spokeswoman for the Air Resources Board. "It's a listening session," she explained. "We will go over certain ideas the board has, but we mostly want to know what the community thinks."

Why? "Because we are all breathers," said Melissa Kelly-Ortega, program associate for the Merced/Mariposa County Asthma Coalition.

The meeting will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday in the multipurpose room of Tenaya Middle School, 760 W. Eighth St. in Merced. A Spanish-language translator will be there.

A topic of discussion will be the federal eight-hour ozone standard in the San Joaquin Valley. A plan to meet the standard is meant give the Valley clean air by 2024. This means reducing emissions that fill areas with unhealthy levels of ozone, carbon monoxide and inhalable particulate matter. The health of the air each day is measured by the air quality index, and the goal is to have each day in the Valley not exceed the standard set for healthy air.

However, some groups -- including the Asthma Coalition -- believe that the standard could be more stringent and would help the Valley reach better air quality before 2024. "Way back before April, we knew the plan was flawed," Kelly-Ortega said.

The Air Resources Board discussed the plan in June and decided to create a task force to explore options on improving air quality more quickly. The task force's job was to get together with community members and people from all industries to gather information and suggestions, said Kelly-Ortega, whose organization is a task force member.

"Basically, leave no stones unturned," she said. "We found some stones were left unturned. Community involvement has been key -- push the Air Resources Board to do more."

This 11-member board, made up of gubernatorial appointees, is part of the California Environmental Protection Agency. It includes science and medical experts and oversees air pollution control efforts all over the state. "People want to see more done and we want to find out what they want done," Rey said.

There are already new regulations going into place to reduce emissions from heavy-duty trucks and other vehicles. This also will be discussed at Wednesday's meeting. "We'd really like to see a full room," she said.

The Merced meeting is the last of three meetings the task force has organized in the northern, middle and southern parts of the Valley. The first two took place in Parlier and Arvin.

Information collected from attendees will be presented to the full Air Resources Board for consideration. So in other words, Rey said, citizen voices will be heard and taken seriously.

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at 209 385-2472 or