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San Joaquin Valley Air Board OKs Plan to Reduce Diesel Smoke, Dust

In submitting the rules to state regulators, the panel says it had to act to meet federal deadlines. Activists say they are not tough enough.

June 20, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO -- The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control board voted Thursday to accept a plan to reduce dust and diesel smoke while treading lightly on super dairies and big farm equipment -- a plan regulators hope will stave off penalties, including the loss of federal transportation funds.

Facing a deadline in August to cut some of the worst particulate pollution in the nation, air board members said they had no choice but to approve the plan, whatever its flaws.

"To not move forward only prolongs the process and delays the fight to clean up our air," said Mike Maggard, a Bakersfield city councilman and air district board member. "We have no choice but to pull the trigger and move forward."

He and his colleagues voted 10 to 0 to send the plan to the state air regulators, who have indicated that they will approve it. The plan then will move to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which can require agriculture and other industries to take more steps to reduce dust and diesel smoke.

The plan drew criticism from doctors, environmentalists and residents who have suffer from asthma, some of whom appeared before the board with steroid inhalers hanging around their necks. They said the plan does not control dust and other contaminants from the dairy and cattle industries and allows the rest of agriculture to police itself.

They disputed the air district's calculations that the steps detailed in the plan will reduce particulate matter by 5% a year, as required by the federal Clean Air Act.

The district's previous plan to reduce particulate pollution from farming and construction was rejected in 2001 by the EPA. If this plan suffers the same fate -- and local regulators don't come up with a better one by next year -- the valley stands to lose $2 billion in federal highway funds. It also risks seeing local control of air pollution ceded to federal regulators.

"This plan is another delay in more than a decade of delays,'' said Kevin Hall, the local Sierra Club member who initiated a series of lawsuits that has turned valley air pollution into a national issue.

"By my count, this is the fourth failed plan to reduce particulates created by big farms, trucks and the oil industry.

"They're letting the farmer regulate himself," Hall said.

"Under this plan, he can decide what pollution measures he wants to take and which ones he doesn't. And his final choice is kept secret from the public."

Brent Newell, a staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said the plan fails to identify any source of funds to hire regulators to ensure that farmers comply with the measures.

The regulators who wrote the plan did not dispute that characterization.

Farm groups supported the board vote. They said there simply isn't enough scientific research to adopt specific pollution control measures on dairies and farms during plowing and harvesting.

"The science is not there. It's not accurate," said Manual Cunha, head of the Nisei Farmers League.

"We keep blaming the outside world for asthma," Cunha said. "We need to take a look inside our houses. Asthma also happens there."

The matter before the board Thursday deals with only half of the valley's serious air pollution. The problem of smog, or ozone pollution, has yet to be addressed in a plan, although one was due in 2000.

This 300-mile-long stretch of factory farms and sprawling suburbs has been the worst place in America for smog, violating the federal eight-hour ozone standard on 10% more days than the Los Angeles region.

The valley's bad air stands in contrast to what has happened in other parts of the country.

The local air pollution control district and the EPA have missed every deadline to improve the valley's skies since the district's formation in 1991.

During that time, the smog-forming emissions from cars, trucks, farms and oil refineries have been cut by one-fourth. This improvement is far below the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

The fight against dust and smoke has fared even worse. Over the last three years, the daily amount of tiny particles in the sky has risen by five tons in a region that already ranks near the top on the EPA's list of particulate pollution.

The haze is a piercing mix of dust, smoke and other airborne matter from farms, dairies, tractors, trucks and wood- burning stoves and fireplaces.

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