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Farm Smog Targeted by EPA

Environment: Agency moves to regulate California agriculture. Farm Bureau seeks to block the action.


The agriculture industry's exemption from clean-air controls may be nearing an end as federal air quality officials announced this week that they will move ahead with plans to begin regulating farms in California. The California Farm Bureau, however, quickly filed suit to block the action.

Unlike most other industries, agriculture is exempt from stringent smog controls, a loophole the state Legislature granted a generation ago and that air quality officials tacitly honored until now.

The Farm Bureau, representing 95,000 farmers, wants the exemption to continue for three more years so experts can better determine how farms contribute to the pollution problem.

But as the San Joaquin Valley slips further and further behind clean-air goals--it is home to some of the nation's most polluted skies--environmentalists and health experts are demanding more aggressive action.

Three advocacy groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year for allowing the agricultural exemption, and in May the agency agreed to take over the California program.

On Wednesday, the EPA announced a proposed rule to accomplish that takeover.

"California state law needs to comply with the Clean Air Act," said Jack Broadbent, director of air programs for the EPA's California office. "As soon as California removes the agricultural exemption from state law, the EPA will return the permitting authority to the state."

The first step would implement a provision of the Clean Air Act that requires significant polluters to secure permits before adding new irrigation pumps or livestock disposal ponds, among other things. Though a permit does not trigger controls, the information they contain forms the foundation for regulatory programs that could come later and affect farming operations statewide.

About 3,500 diesel-powered irrigation pumps dot the San Joaquin Valley. Though many have been cleaned up under a voluntary program, air quality officials say they still represent a prime target.

Environmentalists say healthful air cannot be restored to the valley until farms do their fair share.

"How can you get there [to clean air] when you exempt an industry? They've exempted a huge part of the problem," said Kevin Hall of the Sierra Club.

But Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) said the state's $29-billion agriculture industry is being wrongly blamed for air pollution.

"Agriculture has been doing business in California since the '20s, and it's only when autos and people began moving into the valley that the air got dirtier," he said. "The people who have been farming and feeding the state are being blamed for the problem, but it's really all the growth that is causing this problem."

Nevertheless, Cardoza acknowledges that the Legislature will have little choice but to remove the agricultural exemption.

"We've got a fait accompli. I don't know there's much for the Legislature to do other than comply with the mandate from the federal government," the assemblyman said.

Cardoza said a bill to remove the agriculture exemption is likely to be introduced in the Legislature early next year.

California has an incentive to act. Under the legal agreement between the EPA and environmentalists, if the state does not lift the agricultural exemption, it must restrict economic growth in smoggy cities by late next year or face the loss of more than $3 billion in federal highway funds the next year.

Mike Scheible, deputy executive officer of the state Air Resources Board, said that of the 87,000 farms statewide, perhaps just a few hundred would require permits. The program the EPA is proposing affects only major agricultural operations.

The EPA will receive public comments on its plan until Sept. 3 and will continue working with farms, air quality officials and the Department of Agriculture to develop air quality programs to address farms.

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