Clearing the air

For more than 30 years, farmers in California have been exempt from the Clean Air Act. That’s about to change.

  • A diesel irrigation pump can produce as much exhaust in a year as 120 SUVs

  • California map

    Diane Sylvain

Despite its rural character and its long farming tradition, Shafter — along with the rest of the San Joaquin Valley — has one thing in common with big cities like Los Angeles: Breathing the air can kill you.

The overall asthma rate in the San Joaquin Valley is three times higher than the national average, and asthma hospitalizes 12,000 people every year, 5,000 of them children. In some parts of the valley, like Fresno County, one in six kids has asthma. And it’s getting worse. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is about to designate the region an “extreme nonattainment area” — a title now held only by Los Angeles — for failing to clean up its air to the standard required by the federal Clean Air Act.

Cars and diesel trucks — many of them in urban centers, such as Fresno and Bakersfield — are responsible for the great majority of the valley’s air pollution. But air quality officials say that between 25 and 30 percent of valley smog comes from farms. A single diesel-powered irrigation pump can spew out two tons of nitrogen oxides, a precursor to ozone pollution, every year — equal to 120 large SUVs. More pollution comes from gases released by concentrated animal waste on large dairies and other livestock operations.

And unlike other industries, agriculture in California has been completely exempt from the provisions of the federal Clean Air Act.

That’s about to change. On Sept. 23, California Governor Gray Davis signed a new law ending the agriculture exemption, and directing state air pollution officials to come up with new regulations to reduce the impact of farming on air quality.

Taking on big ag

When California’s first Clean Air Act was passed in 1947, farming simply wasn’t considered a source of pollution. After the federal Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the agricultural industry lobbied for, and won, an exemption formalized by the California Legislature in the state’s “implementation plan,” and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It was the same powerful lobby that kept agriculture exempt from so many wage and labor laws,” says state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. “Agriculture is viewed as special.”

In 2001, however, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Fresno-based Medical Alliance for Healthy Air, along with other groups, sued the federal EPA for excusing the farming industry from the air pollution permits required for other industries. The EPA settled the lawsuit out of court, and ordered the state Legislature to end the agriculture exemption by the end of the year, or lose billions of dollars in federal highway funds.

Sen. Florez seized the moment to launch an ambitious package of clean-air bills, led by SB 700, that would end the air pollution exemption, mandate deadlines for air districts throughout the state to come up with pollution standards for diesel pumps and other stationary equipment, and require air permits for “confined animal feeding operations.” The package would also phase out open-field burning and expand grants for farmers to buy cleaner diesel equipment.

It was a bold move for a freshman state senator whose main constituents are farmers. “A lot of farmers are mad at me,” says Florez. “(But) I figured I might as well do the right thing. I couldn’t get the farmer on my side, but I could get the farmer’s wife, who is looking at the worst asthma in the state every day.”

After a difficult fight in both houses of the state Legislature, SB 700 won final passage in the Senate by a 24-14 margin, and Gov. Davis signed it into law on Sept. 23.

A sure thing?

Farmers are bristling at the new requirements. Jason Baldwin, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, says the new law is going to mean more cost and red tape for farmers.

“In the San Joaquin Valley, we are losing 12,000 acres a year” mostly to suburban real estate development, Baldwin says. “The more regulation you put on farmers trying to compete in a global economy, the harder it’s going to be.”

And more people has meant more cars and trucks, the “mobile sources” responsible for most of the Central Valley’s smog problem. Kevin Hall, a Sierra Club activist from Fresno, acknowledges that the biggest gains in air quality will come from cleaning up mobile sources. But, he says, “You just can’t clean up an air basin if you allow the major industrial source to go unregulated.”

Local air districts, in the San Joaquin Valley and all over the state, are to begin issuing permits in January of 2004. Then the hard work will begin, as the districts try to develop standards for stationary pumps and feedlots, and then begin to tell permit holders that they must use the “best available technology” and replace or retrofit their equipment.

Florez’s bill could yet be undone in the U.S. Congress. Congressional Democrats have already staved off one rider attached to a homeland security bill that would have overriden the new state law for the “protection and security” of the food supply. More riders are likely to follow, and the EPA is already considering other rules that would undermine the new regulations on agriculture before they are even written.

Even if the new rule-making is allowed to go forward, it’s likely to be years before ending the ag exemption makes a dent in the valley’s air pollution problem.

Says Hall: “We really should have done this ten years ago.”

The author covers the environment for the Sacramento News and Review.

Kevin Hall Sierra Club in Fresno, 559-227-6421

Dean Florez democratic senator from Shafter, 916-445-4641

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