Environmental, community, and medical groups celebrated the passage today of SB 700 out of the California State Assembly – legislation that will end the statewide exemption from clean air rules that large agricultural operations have enjoyed for 60 years. The bill now goes to the State Senate for reconciliation before going to Governor Gray Davis for his signature.
Authored by State Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, SB 700 faced fierce opposition from California’s powerful agricultural lobby. The bill was supported by environmental, community, and medical organizations, as well as thousands of residents of California’s San Joaquin Valley, one of the most polluted air basins in the country.
When the bill becomes law, agricultural sources of air pollution will be subject to air pollution controls and permit rules. The bill establishes a timeline to develop those regulations and creates a new state operating permit for large dairies and feedlots.
“Despite a desperate fight waged by Big Ag in the courts and in the back-rooms of the Assembly, a grassroots effort to bring clean air to the Valley prevailed today,” said Brent Newell, an attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment who represented Valley groups with Earthjustice in the litigation and legislative efforts to end the exemption. “We now call on the Senate and Governor Davis to find the political courage to stand up for asthmatic children and say no to Big Ag’s lobbyists.”
Responding to a Public Health Crisis
Agricultural sources are responsible for more than 25 percent of the air pollution in the Central Valley, yet they enjoyed a special exemption under State law that allowed them to avoid the air permit requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.
“Now Big Ag must play by the same rules as every other sector and be treated like any other industry that pollutes our common air. It’s about time,” said Kevin Hall, a Fresno-based clean air activist with Sierra Club. “This bill is a huge step in the right direction and Senator Dean Florez and Senator Byron Sher deserve credit for their courageous leadership and navigation of this important bill through the Assembly.”
Ray Leon of Latino Issues Forum in Fresno, “Each year, the State of California spends $350 million on asthma-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits. Latinos are especially hard hit by respiratory illness in the Central Valley and often lack medical insurance or access to health care providers.”
Children in the Central Valley have suffered the consequences of uncontrolled air pollution because an entire industry has been politically powerful enough to escape regulation for so long. But recent science connecting ground-level ozone (smog) with asthma has made this an issue that could no longer be ignored. Studies show that elevated ozone levels not only exacerbate, but can actually cause asthma in otherwise healthy children who are active outdoors.
“One in six children in Fresno has asthma, a rate triple the national average,” said Dr. David Pepper, an asthma expert and member of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. “Asthma is now the number one cause of childhood hospitalizations in California. We hope these new regulations will reduce the number of children rushed to emergency rooms each summer in the Central Valley gasping for air.”
Litigation Brought Air Pollution and Lax Enforcement into Spotlight
In May 2002, the US Environmental Protection Agency, responding to three lawsuits brought by a coalition of community, health, and environmental groups, demanded that California end the air pollution exemption for the politically powerful agricultural industry. In settling the lawsuits, the EPA deemed part of California’s air program “deficient” under the federal Clean Air Act. That decision included a threat to cut off billions in federal highway funds if the exemption was not rescinded.
After the settlement, the California Farm Bureau Federation countered by filing three consecutive lawsuits against the EPA to preserve the agricultural exemption. The coalition intervened in the lawsuits on behalf of the EPA and successfully defeated the Farm Bureau.
“The Farm Bureau and its allies refused to concede that clean air required every industry’s sacrifice,” said Newell who represents the Association of Irritated Residents and Communities for Land, Air & Water. “We had to go to court again and again to end the exemption.”
State Senator Dean Florez jumped into the fray this year with seven clean air bills that covered a variety of pollution sources. The keystone piece of legislation, SB 700, ended the agriculture exemption.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted in this bill; the agricultural industry fought it tooth and nail, which is why the Central Valley has some of the dirtiest air in the country,” said Anne Harper of Earthjustice who represented the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air in one of the original lawsuits. “But we will keep pushing in the courts and in Sacramento until the federal Clean Air Act is fully enforced in California.”
“The State is going to start taking real action, but much still needs to be done,” said Carolina Simunovic of Fresno Metro Ministry. “We will continue to bring busloads of asthmatic residents from the Central Valley to Sacramento until their voices are fully heard by lawmakers and we have cleaner air to breathe.”