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Valley Air District Will Miss Soot Deadline

Oil and gas fields in California's Central Valley.

Oil and gas fields in California's Central Valley.

Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Well, it happened. As we predicted back in June, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District officially has no hope of attaining the 1997 soot standard by the Dec. 31, 2014 deadline.

The head of the district announced the sad truth during the air district’s governing board meeting last week. Instead of meeting the standard this year, the district will develop a new plan to reduce soot in the Valley with a 2020 attainment date. But, there is a small glimmer of hope: thanks to an Earthjustice court victory last year, the district will need to take stronger action in its new plan, incorporating controls that advocates have long supported.

The first step in creating stronger controls is regulating all of the pollutants that produce soot. Most soot in the San Joaquin Valley comes from ammonium nitrate, which is made up of ammonia and NOx particles. The air district regulates NOx, which many industrial facilities and motor vehicles emit, but the district does not regulate ammonia, which is emitted by dairies and other concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Animal waste produces ammonia. And when hundreds of cattle or other animals are confined in a small area, their wastes produce massive quantities of ammonia. So far, the district has resisted advocates’ requests for ammonia regulations, despite the public health dangers they create. Now that its plans have proven ineffective, we will redouble our efforts to ensure that the district regulates all pollutants that create soot.

Even though the air district regulates NOx, there is much room for improvement in the existing rules. For example, the district relies heavily on incentive funding to meet air quality standards; for instance offering funding to purchase newer equipment. We at Earthjustice and our allies believe that incentives should complement regulation, rather than replace it. That way, funding motivates industry to adhere to new regulations ahead of time, which hastens the Valley’s progress toward its clean air goals.

But incentive funding without regulations, as the district proposes, will not produce the magnitude of emission reductions that the Valley needs. Some polluting industries enjoy very lax regulations for NOx in the San Joaquin Valley, even though the district has recognized the importance of reducing NOx to meet the soot standard.

The oil and gas industry, for example, is under-regulated even as the industry experiences a boom in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley. Flares are used in oil and gas fields to burn off natural gas, which produces NOx in addition to other pollutants. The district regulates flares, but these regulations are so weak that a flare can burn 24 hours per day for days on end.

Even though neighbors complain about the nuisance, the oil and gas companies are technically complying with the district’s regulation. The district agreed to produce a review of its flare rule, but that review is months overdue. Stronger controls exist, and Earthjustice and our fellow advocates in the San Joaquin Valley will continue to push the district to adopt them as the new soot reduction plan is developed.

Even though we see these emission reduction opportunities, making sure that they are implemented is no easy task. Fortunately, last year’s Earthjustice victory will require the Air District’s new soot reduction plan to include the types of measures described above. As the press release describing the case states, the court’s ruling requires areas like the San Joaquin Valley “to implement the best available control measures (instead of just reasonably available measures) and achieve pollution cuts of at least 5 percent per year if they fail to meet standards on time.”

Thanks to this ruling and the hard work of Valley advocates, there’s hope that maybe, just maybe, this new planning process will push the air district to fulfill its vision of “healthful air that meets or exceeds air quality standards for all Valley residents.”

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