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Lay of the Land

Canada Fights Global Warming | Homer at the Helm | Fuel Economy Decline | W Watch | San Joaquin Valley Air Quality | California Marine Reserve | Bold Strokes| For the Record | Green Elephants | Loggers Against Logging | Sprawl | Little Chips, Big Impact | Updates

Move Over, Los Angeles

The nation’s worst air has shifted from city to farms

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

In satellite photographs, the Los Angeles basin looks a little hazy, but California’s much less populated San Joaquin Valley (the southern portion of the great central valley) is cloaked under a murky brown shroud. With its once-fresh country air now a serious health threat, the valley has just overtaken L.A. as having the nation’s most frequently dirty skies.

Valley dwellers not only see the junk, they feel it: A study by the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that asthma rates for the valley’s Fresno County are almost twice as high as those for residents of L.A. County. Yet while eyes burn and lungs ache in the state’s 240-mile-long agricultural midsection, it has taken citizen action to force local and federal agencies to do their job.

Home to nearly 3.5 million people and a half-million cows, the trough-like valley traps vehicle exhaust as well as pollution from the oil refineries in its westside foothills and from its myriad farms and dairies. A combination of pesticide spraying, heavy-duty diesel equipment, dust stirred up during tilling and harvest, and ammonia and particulate matter from livestock waste makes industrial agriculture the region’s biggest polluter. Part of the reason is that the EPA has exempted California farms and dairies from federal pollution rules. Last year, however, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund–acting on behalf of local health, labor, and environmental groups including the Sierra Club–threatened legal action, and now California must abide by the 1970 Clean Air Act’s agricultural regulations, just like the other 49 states. And last October, Earthjustice brought a lawsuit when a Freedom of Information search revealed that the EPA had simply ignored its obligation to implement a 1993 plan to control particulates in the valley.

Like the EPA, the San Joaquin Valley Pollution Control District is being dragged toward cleaner air. According to Kevin Hall, a Fresno native and member of the Sierra Club’s Tehipite Chapter, the district has devised one inadequate plan after another and then ignored implementation. "Our air district agency is among the worst in the nation," says Hall. The district has failed to put a workable plan in place to control either ozone (the main ingredient in smog) or particulate matter.

If there’s any silver lining to this particulate-laden cloud, it’s that citizens are now wise to bureaucratic foot-dragging. "There’s been a tremendous shift," says Hall. "People now understand why things are so bad here and who’s responsible. And they’ve moved from having a passive, defeatist attitude to being angry and demanding change."

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