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Crop of Clean Air Needed

September 04, 2003

The San Joaquin Valley, the food basket of the nation, has some of the dirtiest air in the nation, sullied by a combination of dust, farm chemical residues and farm vehicle pollution. The incidence of asthma in the farm city of Fresno is triple the national rate. Air quality experts estimate that 26% of the valley's pollution comes from agricultural operations. But farming has been exempt from state and federal clean-air rules for decades.

Now, with health studies and some federal muscle to back him, a state lawmaker is gutsily taking on the state's agricultural giants.

The state Senate has already passed SB 700 by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), and the bill is scheduled for a final vote in the Assembly on Monday. The measure would put California in compliance with an Environmental Protection Agency order that states repeal farm exemptions to air quality regulations or face sanctions, such as the cutoff of federal highway construction funds. However, supporters of Florez's bill worry that a few Assembly Democrats who fear the farm lobby will simply not vote, allowing the measure to fail. This cowardly tactic has become popular in recent years, helping to damage the public perception of lawmakers.

The bill applies to all California agriculture, but there is special emphasis on the San Joaquin Valley because the problem is so acute there. The Florez measure died once in an Assembly committee but was revived after Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno) helped negotiate compromises to answer farmers' objections that the measure was too broad.

The latest version requires pollution controls on big farm machinery and diesel pumps. The state would also require farms to obtain pollution permits beginning in 2005 to operate large confined animal facilities such as massive dairy barns and adjacent runoff ponds. New research on animal waste could by then help inform regulations. Local air districts would still have the authority to exempt small farms.

Five companion bills by Florez, including one that would ban open-field burning, have also passed the Senate and deserve to be sent to the governor before the Legislature adjourns Sept. 12. The valley's air is the nation's second most polluted, after that of the L.A. Basin. Although pollution has been declining in Los Angeles, it has been getting worse in farmlands. Florez and Reyes are backing a modest compromise that is a start at letting valley children breathe easier.

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