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Farm Loyalist's Proposal to Curb Smog Is Heresy to Big Agriculture

March 01, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — No politician in California has ever managed to touch it. For nearly 60 years, thanks to rural tradition and state law, agriculture has been exempt from clean-air rules.

Even as the San Joaquin Valley has emerged as the smoggiest region in the nation, farmers continue to enjoy a special status, burning their uprooted trees and vines in big bonfires and plowing their fields into great clouds of dust.

But the days of wide-open farm pollution in the valley may be nearing an end. Last week, state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), one of agriculture's most loyal supporters here, walked into the state Capitol and did the heretical. He introduced a package of bills that, if passed, will stop agricultural burning in California and make cotton, fruit, vegetable and dairy farmers answer to the state and federal Clean Air acts for the first time.

Environmental groups call the legislation historic. Some farmers consider it a betrayal, while others plan a concerted fight to water down several of the 10 bills. Pollsters say Florez's timing could not be better, with surveys showing air quality as a top concern of valley voters.

"It's a gutsy move because it shows that Dean is willing to challenge agriculture on a sensitive issue," said Carol Whiteside of the Great Valley Center, a nonpartisan Modesto-based think tank. "But no issue moves politically until it's ripe, and the issue of air quality is ripe in the valley. Over the past few years, growth and air quality have become the No. 1 and No. 2 concerns of voters here. Like any politician worth his salt, Dean has a good antenna."

Veteran political observers say Florez, a maverick Democrat, is a savvy politician with an eye toward higher office. As an assemblyman last year, Florez proved he was willing to cause a stir. He pushed so hard in committee hearings that exposed a no-bid $95-million computer contract with Oracle Corp. that he embarrassed Gov. Gray Davis' administration. That earned him a reputation for calculated political risk and, many believe, got him fired from a committee chairmanship.

Now the Harvard-educated freshman senator is proposing to take on the San Joaquin Valley's No. 1 employer by imposing new regulations on agriculture. If air quality has emerged as an issue dear to a voter's heart here, this region also happens to be the Bible Belt of California, where conservative viewpoints, including pro-business arguments, resound.

One likely outcome of the legislation, analysts say, is a compromise that creates clean-air rules that farmers can stomach while acknowledging the health concerns of suburbanites, whose numbers keep growing. Already in talks with farmers, Florez has indicated there is some wiggle room.

V. John White, a Sierra Club lobbyist who has opposed Florez on many issues, said the senator could make a real difference if he holds firm under the pressure sure to come from big agriculture.

"What he is proposing here has never been done. The fact that he's taking on agricultural burning directly for the first time is big enough. But his approach is even more comprehensive. If all his bills were to pass, it would lead to clean air in the Central Valley."

But others see a risk in Florez digging in his heels and saddling farmers with regulations too onerous. "His district still depends on agriculture for its economic livelihood," said Tony Quinn, a Sacramento-based political analyst. "There's a political risk any time you take on the biggest employer."

As Florez worked to finish the legislation last month with coauthor Byron Sher, a state senator from Stanford and longtime environmental standard-bearer, he speculated on the political danger. Sure, lawmakers in Los Angeles and San Francisco would have no trouble backing him. But not one of his fellow legislators from the San Joaquin Valley would sign on as a co-sponsor.

Florez could hardly blame them. For the longest time, he said, he also wasn't willing to tackle the immense problem of smog and particulate pollution. But in recent months -- after reading newspaper stories about a region that has missed more than two dozen clean-air deadlines and listening to tales of children dying from respiratory failure -- Florez decided to take a stand.

So here was a 39-year-old grandson of farm workers who had never crossed farmers on a big vote holding court with the Sierra Club.

Here was the same politician who once browbeat an environmentalist for challenging the opening of a large dairy in Kings County now telling dairy farmers that their lagoons full of manure are the equivalent of industrial smokestacks. As such, he wants them to be regulated.

If Florez prevails, dairies and housing tracts will no longer be able to locate within a three-mile radius of each other.

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