The nations worst air has shifted from city to farms
By Marilyn Berlin Snell
In satellite photographs, the Los Angeles basin looks a little hazy, but Californias much less populated San Joaquin Valley (the southern portion of the great central valley) is cloaked under a murky brown shroud. With its once-fresh country air now a serious health threat, the valley has just overtaken L.A. as having the nations most frequently dirty skies.
Valley dwellers not only see the junk, they feel it: A study by the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that asthma rates for the valleys Fresno County are almost twice as high as those for residents of L.A. County. Yet while eyes burn and lungs ache in the states 240-mile-long agricultural midsection, it has taken citizen action to force local and federal agencies to do their job.
Home to nearly 3.5 million people and a half-million cows, the trough-like valley traps vehicle exhaust as well as pollution from the oil refineries in its westside foothills and from its myriad farms and dairies. A combination of pesticide spraying, heavy-duty diesel equipment, dust stirred up during tilling and harvest, and ammonia and particulate matter from livestock waste makes industrial agriculture the regions biggest polluter. Part of the reason is that the EPA has exempted California farms and dairies from federal pollution rules. Last year, however, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fundacting on behalf of local health, labor, and environmental groups including the Sierra Clubthreatened legal action, and now California must abide by the 1970 Clean Air Acts agricultural regulations, just like the other 49 states. And last October, Earthjustice brought a lawsuit when a Freedom of Information search revealed that the EPA had simply ignored its obligation to implement a 1993 plan to control particulates in the valley.
Like the EPA, the San Joaquin Valley Pollution Control District is being dragged toward cleaner air. According to Kevin Hall, a Fresno native and member of the Sierra Clubs Tehipite Chapter, the district has devised one inadequate plan after another and then ignored implementation. "Our air district agency is among the worst in the nation," says Hall. The district has failed to put a workable plan in place to control either ozone (the main ingredient in smog) or particulate matter.
If theres any silver lining to this particulate-laden cloud, its that citizens are now wise to bureaucratic foot-dragging. "Theres been a tremendous shift," says Hall. "People now understand why things are so bad here and whos responsible. And theyve moved from having a passive, defeatist attitude to being angry and demanding change."