Fatal flaw in failed San Joaquin Valley air pollution plan was clearly visible all along

The impending failure was so predictable that anyone with a clear set of eyes could see it coming. Even through the San Joaquin Valley smog.

In late January 2019, the California Air Resources Board gathered in downtown Fresno to unanimously approve a plan designed to finally bring the Valley into compliance with four 1997 federal air quality standards for PM 2.5.

Good news for the country’s dirtiest air basin, right? Not exactly.

The PM 2.5 attainment plan contained a few gaping holes, including one large enough to drive a big rig through: Its success hinged on $5 billion worth of incentives to replace diesel trucks (33,000 of them), buses, ATVs, pieces of farm equipment and commercial charbroilers with newer, cleaner-burning versions that fouled our air less.

Where was the $5 billion coming from? The answers were hazy, at best. When air quality activists posed the question during the meeting, state and local regulators simply ducked and passed the responsibility to Sacramento lawmakers.


As noted by Samir Sheikh, executive director and air pollution control officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the plan required “continued support from all Valley sectors and significant investment at the state and federal level.”

Turns out you can’t build clean air strategies on speculation. So says the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently sent the PM 2.5 attainment plan back to the Environmental Protection Agency for revisions after ruling it failed to meet Clean Air Act requirements.

Specifically, the conservative-leaning bench found fault with a $2.6 billion incentive funding shortfall that would preclude federal, state and local regulators from fulfilling their commitment to reduce air pollution in the Valley as mandated by federal law.

Which is the exact fatal flaw many foresaw 40 months ago when the plan was adopted in a 10th-floor downtown Fresno ballroom. (Whose balcony offers a grand view of the Sierra Nevada — on those rare days when the air is clean enough to see it.) Prior to the latest ruling, other aspects have been disproven and/or withdrawn.

So why did state and local air quality officials go through with what has since been revealed as a largely pointless exercise?

For the sake of keeping up appearances and justifying their largely taxpayer-funded existences following two previous failures. Nothing more.

Fresno’s skyline is seen through the haze along the 180 Freeway, Jan. 12, 2021.
Fresno’s skyline is seen through the haze along the 180 Freeway, Jan. 12, 2021.

‘Wake-up call’ for local air officials

Greg Muren, an Earthjustice attorney who challenged the EPA’s approval in federal court, disparaged the PM 2.5 attainment plan as “half-baked” and “unrealistic.”

“We hope the responsible agencies will view this as a wake-up call and finally develop a real plan to protect residents from deadly air pollution, as the law requires,” Muren said.

The most logical, direct path to reducing PM 2.5 emissions — the tiny particulate matter linked to asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and death — would be to require our biggest polluters to clean up their acts.

But that would require clamping down on companies that produce oil, generate electricity and process biomass. Limit the toxic methane gas burped into the atmosphere by our region’s dairy farms. Impose restrictions on glass factories, wineries, distribution centers and dust-producing almond growers.

Those are actual proactive measures the Valley Air District has always dodged. Why? Because those polluting industries also create jobs and donate heavily to the campaigns of local politicians who make up the air district’s governing board.

Which explains why, rather than targeted reduction measures, we get PR campaigns centered on residential fireplace burning and incentive-based strategies. While oil companies, electricity generation plants and corporate mega-farms operate pretty much as they please.

Arambula bill bypasses failing districts

A new bill, authored by Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), threatens to upset that dynamic by requiring the state air resources board to take a more active, forceful role in developing attainment plans for local air districts (such as ours) that are in “severe or extreme nonattainment” of federal pollution standards.

Under AB 2550, which cleared the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee on Monday by a 7-3 vote, state officials must undertake a series of steps to develop whatever rules and regulations they think are necessary to bring the Valley into compliance. And the Valley Air District has no choice but to go along.

While that sounds good in theory, state air officials weren’t much help three years ago when they eagerly co-signed a plan that didn’t have much hope of succeeding.

As things turned out, the only backstop against that complete governmental failure was a federal appeals court packed with conservative judges by President Donald Trump.

The Valley’s PM 2.5 attainment plan may be dead. But irony isn’t.