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Still Gasping for Clean Air in San Joaquin Valley

Growing up in California's San Joaquin Valley, we spent our summer days at the community swimming pool and on the soccer field. Playing outside was one of the joys of growing up in a region where the days are warm, the grass is green and the sky is clear.

These days, elementary schools in the valley fly color-coded flags to alert parents of "bad air days" when their children should be kept indoors. Childhood fun in the valley is not what it used to be.

Despite recently approving a $857,500 public relations campaign to say otherwise, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District received yet another failing grade by the American Lung Association this week in the 2009 State of the Air report.

Kern County, which includes Bakersfield, was ranked the worst region for year-round particulate pollution in the United States officially displacing Los Angeles, a city known for air pollution. For ozone pollution, three valley regions were in the top five most polluted in the nation: Bakersfield at No. 2, Visalia-Porterville at No. 3, and Fresno-Madera came in at No. 4.

Here are the 2009 grades for the air district by county:

San Joaquin: F, Stanislaus: F, Merced: F, Madera: F, Fresno: F, Kings: F, Tulare: F, Kern: F.

These grades are difficult to celebrate, even with large PR budgets.

The pollution faced by residents of the San Joaquin Valley is a mix of soot, diesel exhaust, chemicals, metals and aerosols. The health impacts are measurable.

For example, the California Air Resources Board recently tripled the estimate of premature deaths in California from particle pollution to 18,000 annually. And the latest scientific review by the National Research Council proves that exposure to ozone pollution can shorten life.

Rather than attacking the problem head on and risk upsetting some very powerful special interests, the District and the regional EPA office headquartered in San Francisco have allowed California's Central Valley to become America's air pollution capital.

Earthjustice's California office has filed numerous legal actions over the last decade to get the air district and the EPA to finally address this problem. We are making progress, but the work is difficult. There is great resistance from industry and agriculture to make the necessary changes that would benefit their community and even their own families.

After a recent legal setback on coarse particulate air pollution, Earthjustice attorney Paul Cort told the Fresno Bee:

Notwithstanding the fact that air monitors show that EPA's health-based standards for particulate matter are regularly exceeded, EPA and the District have succeeded in convincing the court that nothing more needs to be done to fix the problem. This does not mean the air is clean, as Valley residents can see with their own eyes. These decisions mean that EPA and the air district will not be required to do more to clean up dust pollution. The problem has been swept under an elaborate regulatory rug.

But we are not giving up. And neither is the coalition of community and health groups we represent in the valley. Earthjustice is pushing for the strongest national health standards at the federal level and redoubling efforts to make sure these standards are enforced, even in the most polluted counties in the nation.

We will not quit until every child in the San Joaquin Valley can safely play outdoors.

Tags:  Air, Clean Air Act, Ozone

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