The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) recently reported that air quality in the Central Valley improved this past year to the level of attainment of federal air quality standards. At the measuring stations, this is true. But what about parts of the Great Valley not adjacent to stations?
If your residence or business isn’t located near a monitoring station, your daily air quality could be a lot worse than the reports show for the region. On any given day, the air where you are may be unhealthful. The monitoring stations don’t have the capability of tracking air quality in every part of the valley.
For example, people burn wood in their homes. When the air is stagnant, smoke accumulates in quantities harmful to the elderly and people with respiratory problems. Inhaling the smoke may be comparable to consuming up to several packages of cigarettes per day.
This writer’s brother and family are being forced out of the Valley because he and his two children can no longer stand the harmful effects of the air pollution in his area. In his Stockton home, which is not near a monitoring station, his kids are developing asthma and skin rashes from particulate matter in the air. Next month, the family is moving out of the Valley and cited the poor air quality as the reason.
As this writer types on a December night, he is coughing from smoke in the neighborhood. There’s no wind outside, but people nearby are using their fireplaces and wood stoves. The smoke is gradually increasing in concentration, making life more and more miserable.
Non Burn Days and Other Mitigation Programs
The SJVAPCD declares non-burn days, days when it is illegal to burn wood in stoves, fireplaces and for agricultural purposes. However, citizens often ignore the order. On days it’s okay to burn, the air in some parts of the valley can be stagnant and extremely unhealthful, especially where many people use their fireplaces. The determination about whether a day will be a burn day is dependent on the weather forecast for most of the Valley.
The SJVAPCD has tried hard to reduce air pollution through tough regulations and programs such as the clean diesel truck program. However, the urbanization of the Valley is offsetting the progress made by the district because more people are generating air pollution. Long distance commuters may be driving cleaner cars, but the greater amount of driving and larger number of cars has more than offset the improvement in vehicle emissions.
The Sparse Number of Monitoring Stations
According to its web site, the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District has only 36 air pollution monitoring stations widely scattered from San Joaquin County to Kern County, an area over 200 miles long and over 35 miles wide. San Joaquin County has 4 monitoring stations, Stanislaus County has only 2, Merced County 2, Madera County 3, Fresno County 8, Kings County 3, Tulare County 5, and Kern County 9.
While the 36 stations provide a reasonable overview of Valley air quality, the view isn’t localized enough to determine whether citizens everywhere are living in healthful conditions.
The Shortcomings of “No Burn” Programs
“Spare the Air” and “No Burn” days are supposed to minimize polluted air. However, the Valley is so large that one weather forecast cannot cover every part of it. While a large part of the Valley may experience sufficient winds to prevent the accumulation of toxic air and justify the designation of a burn day, localized stagnant air can contain harmful levels of carcinogens.
When the air district says it’s ok to burn, citizens may do so even though it’s not safe in their own neighborhood. People assume it’s safe to burn if the air district says so. They don’t know whether the air is stagnant where they live. One active fireplace can severely pollute the air of an entire neighborhood on a day or night when the air is still. Even worse, some citizens use their fireplaces on “No Burn” days. Some are caught and fined, but most are not because the Valley has a large population, enforcement has relatively few officials, and enforcement is complaint driven. The worst situation is where citizens use wood to heat their homes throughout the winter regardless of burn days.
As the population of the San Joaquin Valley continues to grow, air pollution problems will either become worse or wood burning restrictions will need to be made into permanent prohibitions. The alternative is ever greater air pollution and related health problems.