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A Bumper Crop of Bad Air in San Joaquin Valley

SUNDAY REPORT

Growth brings more smog and health woes. Cleanup seems a low priority for officials.

December 08, 2002|Mark Arax and Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writers

Hall brought in EarthJustice, the San Francisco-based environmental defense fund, to file a series of lawsuits. Citing a pattern of neglect and inaction, EarthJustice challenged, among other things, the state's exemption on agriculture and the failure of the federal EPA and air district to oppose this free pass. In May, the EPA settled one of the lawsuits by agreeing to seek an end to the farm exemption, though it's likely to be years before farms will be required to change their practices.

Chuck Sant'Agata, executive director of the American Lung Assn. in Fresno, senses a shift in public awareness. The air district, for instance, may soon ban winter fireplace use on bad air days, and it has pledged to reconsider the idea of a fee on builders.

"Public sentiment is changing," Sant'Agata said. "People are starting to open their eyes. Now we have to get the politicians aboard."

That may not be such an easy thing.

In April, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California ranked air pollution as the No. 1 concern of valley residents, with sprawl not far behind. Yet two prominent state legislators -- Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) and Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) -- have never made cleaning up the air an issue.

"We have not touched on that issue yet," said Reyes' press secretary, Karen Clifton.

Last year, state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), then an assemblyman, did take a stand when the Bakersfield Californian interviewed him for an in-depth report on air quality. He told the newspaper he was too busy dealing with other state issues to concern himself with improving the air.

This September, even as local schools canceled Friday football games for the first time because of bad air, local officials took the following actions:

* The Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved a new dairy with 14,000 Holsteins.

* The Council of Fresno County Governments urged voters to pass a tax to fund $1.3 billion in new highways.

* The air district allowed farmers to conduct open-field burning of more than 6 million tons of paper and plastic trays used to make raisins.

* The city councils in Fresno, Clovis, Visalia and Tulare pushed ahead plans for more housing tracts and more strip malls -- without studying impacts on traffic and air.

"There's such a pressure to expedite these projects that no one in the planning departments is asking hard questions about traffic congestion and how it impacts air quality," said Moses Stites, an assistant planner for the California Department of Transportation in Fresno. "It's business as usual."

At the Biskup farm on the northern edge of the city, a "For Sale" sign now marks the frontyard. As soon as their third child is born in January, Mike and Lisa Biskup, lifelong Fresnans, are moving -- to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

"I love my job, and I love this farm," he said. "But I can't put my kids in harm's way anymore. We're 10 years away from breathing even marginally better air."

*

Arax is a state enterprise reporter based in Fresno; Polakovic is an environment reporter based in Los Angeles.

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