San Joaquin Valley’s Air Again Fails To Make Grade

(April 28, 2010)

The Fresno Bee

April 28, 2010

The American Lung Association says many places in California and the rest of the country made big improvements in air quality. But in terms of dust, soot and other specks, the San Joaquin Valley's air got dirtier.

In the association's annual air-quality report, the Valley accounts for five of the 10 urban areas with the highest spikes in fine particle pollution -- the worst showing of any air basin in the country.

The association said some of the increase was probably due to thousands of California wildfires in 2008. The rankings are based on data from 2006 to 2008, the latest information available.

The 11th annual report, which will be released today along with grades for each region, says millions of Americans still face a health crisis from dirty air.

All eight Valley counties received "F" grades.

Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the lung association in California, said the report shows that across the nation people are at risk. "Thousands of people are dying early because of air pollution."

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District agreed there is much work to do, but officials said the association's annual report is too broad and too tough to inspire changes. It should be retooled, said district executive director Seyed Sadredin.

"Santa Barbara County got an 'F' for ozone in this report," he said. "So if we clean up the Valley's air to be like Santa Barbara, we still get an 'F'?"

Santa Barbara had 27 federal ozone violations in the past five years. The Valley had 98 last year alone -- and it was the Valley's best year ever.

Many California air district managers will meet with association officials in the next few months to discuss ways of reflecting trends, Valley officials said.

The trends should show improvements in Valley air over the last few years, officials said.

One Fresno health expert says he still sees the health crisis outlined by the American Lung Association, even though air cleanup efforts appear to be making progress.

"The word is we're cleaning up the Valley air, but the fact is people are still suffering," said Dr. John Gasman, a pulmonologist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno. "I have not seen a dramatic improvement in the community's respiratory health."

One-day spikes of soot, dust and other fine particulate pollution increased from 2006 to 2008 in Bakersfield, Fresno-Madera, Visalia-Porterville, Modesto and Hanford-Corcoran, the report showed.

Bakersfield was the worst place in the country for such particle-pollution spikes, association officials said.

The city was third-worst last year.

The Valley also had four of the 10 worst places in the country for ozone, a corrosive, warm-weather gas.

The areas are Bakersfield, Visalia-Porterville, Fresno-Madera and Hanford-Corcoran.

One surprise in the ozone analysis was San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles to the west of the Valley. The area was included because of violations recorded along San Luis Obispo County's eastern line, near the Valley.

Larry Allen, executive director of the air quality district in San Luis Obispo County, said the violations affect less than 1% of the county's population. He said the monitors are used to help detect pollution traveling from the Valley, the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

"I don't think it's fair," he said. "Anybody who has been to San Luis Obispo knows this ranking doesn't pass the laugh-out-loud test."