Bakersfield again No. 1 for particle pollution

(April 28, 2011)


April 28, 2011

Bakersfield has in recent years seen some of the lowest levels of smog-producing ozone ever measured in the southern San Joaquin Valley, along with significant improvements in particle pollution.

But that progress didn't save Bakersfield from being ranked the most polluted city in the nation by the American Lung Association's 12th annual "State of the Air" report released today.

Valley air officials not associated with the lung association said the annual report is worth considering and lauded it for shining a light on a serious and stubborn public health problem. But in an email response to the report, officials with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District suggested the report makes use of inadequate and disproportionate air pollution measurements and overlooks great improvements in the valley's air quality in recent years.

The lung association report, which examined data averaged from 2007 through 2009, focused on two measurements of particle pollution, a mostly wintertime problem, and one measurement of ozone, a summertime air pollutant.

Bakersfield was found to have the worst levels in the nation for short-term fine particulate matter -- mostly tiny dust and soot particles -- measured over a 24-hour period. The southern end of the valley also had the worst particle pollution problem measured as a year-round average.

But Bakersfield didn't quite reach the worst of the worst list in levels of ozone, which produces smog. The Los Angeles Basin had that unflattering distinction, with Bakersfield coming in second worst.

Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the American Lung Association of California, said there has been tremendous progress made across the state since the lung association published its first report. But more than half of Americans and more than 30 million Californians, she said, still live in areas that experience dangerous levels of air pollution at some time during the year.

The report illustrates that the challenges faced in the San Joaquin Valley are unmatched by other regions in California. It's well known that the valley's bowl-like topography and weather patterns trap pollutants low to the ground and cook up a soup of summer smog that can make the nearby mountains invisible.

"We understand your frustration," Holmes-Gen said of Bakersfield residents who feel they are in a game they can't win. "We believe the game can be won."

She said cleaning up emissions from diesel trucks, buses and farm equipment is one component of a multi-pronged solution. The need for more zero- and near zero-emission vehicles is another component.

One huge challenge is to get each one of us to re-examine our own contribution to the pollution problem, said the authors of the report. Do we drive unnecessary miles? Do we buy locally? Do we burn wood or waste electricity?

Local air district officials said because the report does not look beyond 2009, it overlooks the fact that the winters of 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 were the cleanest on record. In addition, more than 2,000 wildfires in the valley and areas ringing the valley in 2008 severely affected the valley's air quality, but that factor is not reflected in the report.