Call it smog tag or a high-stakes game of hot potato. The long-running blame game between the Bay Area and the Central Valley over who should take responsibility for wind-borne air pollution is heating up again.
The latest flash point is a new anti-smog plan that Bay Area officials developed to replace one that failed to deliver clean air by a 2000 deadline. The new plan targets ozone all over the Bay Area, but especially in Livermore, the region's ozone hot spot. But officials in the Central Valley say it will do little to cut the pollution that the wind carries from the coast to as far away as Bakersfield.
"It's air pollution politics," said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the state Air Resources Board. "There has been a long-standing difference of opinion between residents [of the Central Valley and the Bay Area] over air pollution, and those feelings are resurgent right now. The valley sees this as maybe their last chance for a few years to get reductions [upwind] in the Bay Area, so they're seizing the opportunity."
As the neighboring regions attempt to toss the burden for cleanup to polluters in the other's backyard, federal cleanup deadlines have come and gone.
Meanwhile, more than 3 million people continue to inhale some of the worst air in America, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley--exposure that contributes to asthma, hospitalizations and premature death.
Not merely an environmental dispute, the controversy goes to the heart of what one neighbor owes another. Matters are not helped by cultural differences that fuel suspicion between residents of the two regions, one steeped in working-class values, the other famed for its cerebral skills and lavish living.
"There's simmering tension between the Bay Area and the valley," said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mark J. DeSaulnier, who serves on the governing board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. "People in the Bay Area don't say, 'Eek! It's someone from Stockton!' but they communicate it in other ways. There's just a caste system that people stereotypically put on other people, and it's not very fruitful."
In the latest feud, officials in the San Joaquin Valley believe the air quality management plan for the Bay Area is inadequate. Although the plan aims to cut emissions by 246 tons daily, it will still leave a lot of pollution to blow into valley communities downwind. It's not exactly clear where all the smog goes, but an investigation 11 years ago showed that, on the worst days, emissions from the Bay Area contribute to 27% of the ozone in Modesto, 11% in Fresno and 7% in Bakersfield, according to the ARB.
"The bottom line is it [pollution] doesn't just go into a black hole in space. It moves east and it's enough to cause [violations] of the state and federal ozone standards," said David L. Crow, executive officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Management District.
"We're not blaming the Bay Area for the totality of the problem but, in some cases, the Bay Area has less stringent controls than other areas of the state," Crow said.
Indeed, Central Valley officials hammered home that point to the state air board July 26 as it considered the revamped Bay Area anti-smog plan.
At that meeting, Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) joined dozens of farmers, business leaders and local officials who demanded stronger measures against upwind polluters.
Critics focused on the fact that the Bay Area is the only metropolitan region in the state where the so-called Smog Check II program is not in effect. The Legislature adopted that program, which requires more rigorous and more costly emissions testing and repair for cars, but the Bay Area was exempted by the bill's author, who represented the region.
"We make all of these small, rural communities do advanced smog checks, but not the Bay Area, and that represents a huge amount of emissions that they can reduce," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno. "It's time for San Francisco to suck it up. These big cities need to be more responsible [by] curtailing the emissions from some 4 million cars."
Said DeSaulnier: "The word that comes up the most is equity. That's what a lot of this comes down to."
Heeding those objections, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the ARB seek an additional 23 tons of emissions reductions daily from the Bay Area by 2006--a move that puts a greater onus on coastal oil refineries, small businesses and residents. The air board plans to reconsider the Bay Area plan Sept. 20.
Without a plan that will pass muster, the Bay Area is vulnerable to a cutoff of federal highway funds that could begin in October. The EPA, frustrated that Bay Area officials let clean-air gains slip away and missed last year's Clean Air Act deadline for cleanup, has threatened to impose those sanctions.
On the other hand, environmentalists and Bay Area air-quality officials are critical of the smog-fighting program in the Central Valley.