California passes bill to improve air quality in country’s top polluted region

The California Air Resources Board will be tightening its supervision over one of the most polluted pockets of the country, following the passage of a key bill aimed at improving the San Joaquin Valley’s air quality.

The panel approved the bill, AB-2550, on Monday evening, following a hearing in which lawmakers highlighted the respiratory health impacts that Central Californian residents have suffered due to long-term exposure to particulate matter pollution.

The legislation will enable the Air Resources Board to intervene in San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District air pollution programs, to ensure that the region meets national ambient air quality standards, according to the bill.

“This crisis is particularly harmful for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities,” the bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D), said at the hearing, noting that such pollution leads to missed days of work and impacts childhood development.

“And at its worst, we know that bad air contributes to premature deaths,” Arambula added.

Fine particulate matter — particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, also known as PM 2.5 — come from sources like wildfires, wood-burning stoves, coal-fired power plants and diesel engines. These microscopic pollutants can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and also potentially lead to lung cancer.

Just last week, the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report card showed that most of the country’s highest-ranking spots for both acute and long-term exposure to particle pollution were in California, as The Hill reported. Of those cities, the worst offenders were in the San Joaquin Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District includes eight counties: San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and a portion of Kern.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes the valley as having “some of the nation’s worst air quality,” due to a combination of topography and pollution sources. The valley’s surrounding mountain ranges trap air pollutants, which come from heavy truck traffic, diesel-burning locomotives, tractors, irrigation pumps and fireplaces, according to the EPA.

Of the top 10 U.S. cities most affected by daily spikes in particulate matter, the American Lung Association ranked Fresno first; Bakersfield, in Kern County, second; and Visalia, in Tulare County, ninth.

“In Fresno County alone, the American Lung Association estimates there are nearly 20,000 cases of pediatric asthma and over 65,000 cases of adult asthma,” Arambula, who represents Fresno, said at the hearing.

As far as the top offenders for annual particulate pollution are concerned, the American Lung Association ranked Bakersfield first for the third year in a row, while Fresno and Visalia were tied for second place.

All eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley remain in “nonattainment” — meaning, they have failed to meet the criteria — of national standards for PM 2.5 set in 1997, let alone the stricter ones passed in 2006 and 2012, according to Monday’s legislation.

“Ultimately, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that everyone, including our people who live in the San Joaquin Valley, can breathe cleaner air and not suffer from the impacts of pollution,” Arambula said.

The bill, passed as an amendment to California’s Health and Safety Code, says that if a district experiencing “severe or extreme nonattainment for a national ambient air quality standard” fails to achieve attainment by the date applicable to that standard, the Air Resources Board must step in.

Some of the panel’s responsibilities will involve partnering with both the district and community-based organizations, as well as identifying gaps in state implementation and district attainment programs.

The Air Resources Control Board will also need to work with the district to provide additional monitoring and enforcement capacity for stationary air pollution sources, according to the bill.

“Air pollution contributes to numerous negative health impacts, economic impacts and erodes quality of life in the San Joaquin Valley,” Catherine Garoupa White, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, said at Monday’s hearing.

“Roughly one in five children in the valley have asthma,” she continued. “More people in our region die each year from fine particle pollution than car accidents.”

Wildfires and extreme heat, coupled with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, are exacerbating an “already dire public health crisis,” Garoupa White explained.

Garoupa White accused the district of “favoring industry at the expense of public health,” adding that officials “continue to blow through deadlines to meet standards that are so old, they can no longer be considered health protective.”

Representatives of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District objected to the legislation at the hearing, arguing that the bill would provide no additional benefits, as it addresses only stationary rather than mobile air pollution sources.

In California, local air pollution control districts are responsible for controlling air pollution from stationary sources, while management of mobile sources — like vehicular emissions — falls under the authority of the state.

Tom Jordan, a senior policy adviser for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, stressed that the legislation “doesn’t provide any additional resources to address mobile source emissions, which are the single largest contributor to the state’s air quality challenges.”

“We agree with the author that the San Joaquin Valley faces one of the most significant air quality challenges in the country due to our topography, climate geography and the presence of two major transportation corridors that traverse our region,” he said.

With regards to stationary source pollution, Jordan pointed out that the EPA has recognized that district’s rules as “more stringent than anywhere else in the country.”

Countering that argument, Garoupa White said “it’s one thing to have the strongest rules — it’s another thing to actually go out and enforce them.”

“What’s unique about this bill is enshrining the inclusion of community-based organizations and disadvantaged communities that previously had been marginalized in the process,” she added.

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