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Valley air officials to consider new rules

To some, air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley means playing peek-a-boo with the mountains — some days you see them, many days you can’t.

For others, it means the threat of serious health issues, such as asthma and heart disease.Melissa Kelly-Ortega, program associate with the Merced/Mariposa Asthma Coalition, has a 4-year-old daughter, Satya, who developed a chronic cough and must take twice-a-day medication for her breathing problems. That’s one reason Kelly-Ortega became a front-line soldier in the battle for cleaner air.

Jennifer Smith, a project manager at UC Merced, said her 2-year-old niece has been using an inhaler since she was 16 months old.

Smith and her husband, Dennis, didn’t even realize how bad the air was in Merced until they moved here from North Dakota eight months ago, “I’ve met so many people with respiratory problems,” she noted. “I notice the difference. You can just see it in the air.”

And that’s just one of many quirks about the state of the air here, said Paul Cort, staff attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm.

Although pollution is a recurring problem in the Valley, and although it affects many people, everyday folks don’t know that much about it.

Efforts by federal, state and regional agencies to address the problem also fall short, Cort and other lawyers and activists contend.

But the feds and other air police maintain that they’re taking steps to reduce ozone and particulate pollution. Chief among the enforcers are the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A hearing by the air district’s board at its Fresno office Wednesday will consider approving a plan to reduce PM2.5 — ultrafine particulate matter. It would guide regulations to allow the Valley by 2014 to meet 1997 air standards set by the EPA. Is enough being done?

“That doesn’t mean nothing will happen between now and 2014,” said Seyed Sadredin, the air district’s pollution control officer and executive director. “Measures kick in during the meantime.”Based on past efforts, 39 percent of the Valley — including most of Merced County — already meets those 1997 clean air standards, he said.

And on Monday the air district announced that the EPA proposes to declare that the Valley has attained health standards for reducing PM10 — another slightly larger type of fine particulate pollution.

Activists disagree with these findings, arguing that Valley air isn’t getting cleaner at a reasonable rate.

Cindy Broughton, who runs an advertising business in Merced, hasn’t done much research on the issue. But she knows what she sees and breathes from the air. “It seems to be out of control,” she said, adding that although she hasn’t been diagnosed with asthma, she often suffers shortness of breath.

You can see the murky khaki-colored pollution hanging in the air, hiding the mountains, she said, and she often smells the thick, greasy odor of exhaust.

The air district is only trying to meet an old and outdated standard to fight the problem, say groups such as Earthjustice and the Asthma Coalition. The district isn’t making regulations stringent enough to address not just mobile sources of pollution, such as diesel trucks, but stationary sources, such as industry and agriculture.

“We want them to push the boundaries,” said Mary-Michal Rawling, program manager of the Asthma Coalition. “Ideally, a plan that would adhere to the 2006 standards. I’m not implying they are doing nothing, but they need to be more aggressive.”

Litigation from the trucking industry - which will have to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars retrofitting trucks to curb more emissions — slowed the EPA’s passing of 1997 standards. This delayed other air-quality agencies’ plans.

Although the standard eventually passed, the trucking industry continues to worry about how harmful all the costs of the regulations could be to their business.

Regardless of the economics and the EPA’s delay, agencies still aren’t working as hard as they should to clean up the air, Cort said at an April 14 workshop in Merced.

That evening he and other speakers explained the ins and outs of particle pollution and how it affects local residents. What is particle pollution?Particulate matter is classified by its size. The smaller the particle, the deeper it can penetrate into the human system.

Ultra-fine particulate matter — PM2.5 — is so small that about 30 particles can fit on the width of a human hair. They can sneak deep into the lungs and launch into the bloodstream, aggravating asthma, contributing to heart disease and causing premature death.

A large source is nitrogen oxide, 80 percent of which comes from such mobile platforms as big trucks, Sadredin said.

PM10, which consists of coarse fine particles, comes mainly from stationary sources, such as fireplaces and food processing — “basically, everything other than trucks, vehicles,” he said. A key component in the Valley potentially meeting PM10 EPA standards is the air district’s fireplace regulations with “no burn” days. And a way to further control the air quality could mean stricter regulations, with 30 or more “no burn” days a year, Sadredin added.

However, activists simply don’t believe some of the air district’s data stating the air is getting cleaner according to national standards. Earthjustice is even challenging the district’s position with litigation.And the regional air district depends too much in its PM2.5 plan on a truck emissions-reduction rule to be set by the state air resources board, according to the Asthma Coalition and other clean air groups.

The activists think local air defense outfits should enforce stricter standards that prevail throughout the Valley. Los Angeles has gotten much more attention for its bad air, Cort said.

The truck rule doesn’t go into effect until 2014, but the air should be cleaner sooner, they say. Besides, there are more ways ultra-fine particulate pollution can be addressed. The controls are focused on nitrogen oxide, while sources of volatile organic compounds should be further regulated.

Stationary sources, such as boilers, which generate power and steam for a variety of industries, and dryers, which dry such products as fruit, contribute to the problem.

And there are ways to further regulate that equipment, Alvin Valeriano, a contractor for the nonprofit International Sustainable Research Center, and a former air district employee, said in March. What’s the plan?

Like the statewide rolling blackouts earlier this decade — except with a positive intent — different parts of the Valley will enjoy cleaner air at different times. Today, the yardsticks for pollution reduction are 2011, 2013 and 2014, with each year showing more residents breathing less polluted air.

Fans of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard may not like it, but “the last place will be Bakersfield,” Sadredin reckons. “Generally, the south end is where the pollution travels.”

That blue-sky blueprint builds off the air district’s plan to clean up ozone pollution by 2024. However, activists are also unhappy with the ozone plan, asking for the air to be cleaned up sooner.

Whatever roadmap for scrubbing particulates and ozone from Valley air is drawn up, it ultimately must get the EPA’s stamp of approval. What can you do?

Cort encouraged Merced County residents to attend the April 30 hearing in Fresno. Getting up to speed about the issue and supplying input form key parts of the strategy.

And anyone elected to office who’s making decisions about the subject must also become knowledegable, said John Carlisle, a Merced city councilman. Dirty air has plagued Merced for a long time — but cleaning it up still isn’t a high enough priority.

The city could be doing more, but politics can get in the way, he said: “There’s a lot of conflicting feelings, financial issues. In their hearts people want to do the right thing, but they don’t want it to cost anything.”

One action residents can take is to change their minds — and behavior — about public transportation, said Merced County supervisor candidate Casey Steed, who attended the April 14 pollution workshop with Carlisle. “Get people out of the mindset that public transportation is just for those without vehicles,” she admonished.

It’s true that harmful pollution pours out of cars, but especially heavy trucks — the largest source of diesel pollution, said Don Anair, vehicles analyst for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists: “It’s not good stuff to breathe, and we know that each time we are behind a truck.”

If only more could be done to fight this pollution, clean air activists urge. And despite what they believe are excuses from state and regional agencies, more can be done — if only everyone would work just a little harder.

In the 21st century, especially in the Valley, air is no longer free.