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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rural Air

Air Date: Week of

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Most people picture Los Angeles when they think of polluted air in California. But the state’s dirtiest air may soon hover over its legendary agricultural valleys. Tamara Keith reports from California's Central Valley, where the air is getting worse.


KEITH: Standing on an overpass on the edge of sprawling Fresno, Kevin Hall, a Sierra Club volunteer, surveys the skies. It's 8:30 in the morning, and already a brownish-gray haze covers the valley.

HALL: Well, if you just do a 360, you can see it all around you. You can't see it immediately in front of you. You have to be looking through a great enough distance to see that it's there. And that's the particulate matter, what's visible.

KEITH: Half an hour later, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, located just 20 miles to the east, are no longer visible. Depending on which pollutant you count, California's Central Valley now ranks either second or fourth worst in the nation. In order to comply with the Clean Air Act, the region needs to reduce smog by about a third.

The ingredients of the Valley's polluted soup come from oil refineries, food packinghouses, farms and dairies. But the big villain is vehicles; big rigs, cars and tractors. And, in certain parts of the Valley, on some days, as much as a quarter of the region's pollution comes from cars and factories miles north in the San Francisco Bay Area. Coastal breezes sweep the smog over the mountains into the Central Valley. Michael Kleeman is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California-Davis.

KLEEMAN: I'd visualize it as sort of a bathtub with the air just sort of sloshing around, and cooking in the sun. That traps the pollutants close the ground. We then are exposed to very high pollutant concentrations as they cook in the sun, basically.

KEITH: Respiratory therapist Kevin Hamilton sees the effects of sun-baked pollution everyday. And it's turned him into one of the region's most vocal air quality activists. He specializes in asthma, a disease that now affects nearly ten percent of the Valley's population. That figure is about double the national average.

His family moved up to the Valley from Los Angeles in 1986. None of them had asthma when they lived in LA. But now two daughters and his wife all have the disease. He says others shouldn't take the risk.

HAMILTON: Right now, I would tell them don't bring your children here until we get this problem squared away. That's a terrible thing to say. But it's how I feel. It's that bad.

KEITH: A recent study by the University of Southern California found the first causal link between air pollution and asthma.


Registered nurse, Leonora Pentoja, listens to patient Leena Rodriguez's lungs with a stethoscope at a family practice clinic in Fresno. Rodriguez has had asthma since 1987. It was shortly after she started work as a janitor in a plant that makes jams and juices that she began having trouble.


VOICEOVER: Oh, it feels like you can't breathe. Really tight. It's awful. All the time I feel like I'm suffocating with the asthma.

KEITH: The community medical centers in Fresno have had to hire several Spanish-speaking asthma educators like nurse Leonora Pentoja. She says her patients who work in agriculture are always surrounded by potential triggers.

PENTOJA: Whether it's in a factory enclosed area, or whether it's out in the fields, whether it's walking around Fresno itself, it just becomes such a hazard for them just to breathe.


KEITH: Agriculture is critical to the Valley economy. And most agricultural operations are exempt from clean air rules under California law, which means tractors, diesel pumps and dairies don't have to get pollution permits. But, it's not clear just how much pollution is coming from agriculture.

Manuel Cunha is a Fresno County orange grower and is President of the Nesei Farmers League. He says for the last three years farmers have been replacing old engines and farm equipment with newer, less polluting ones.

CUNHA: In the valley so far, we've done 2,100 engines. The largest number of voluntary engines in the United States is here in the San Joaquin Valley, a voluntary program. So, the farmers are stepping to the plate.

KEITH: But Cunha says, despite their efforts, farmers seem to be getting blamed for all of the Valley's air problems. And he says that just isn't accurate.

CUNHA: The farmers aren't the only ones producing the emissions. All of the public who drive their cars, turn on their fireplaces, turn on their barbecues, all of that adds to the pile. But the environmentalists are making it like the farmers have killed everybody in this state.

KEITH: Cunha is fighting to keep the exemption for agriculture. And that exemption has been raising more and more eyebrows as the region wakes up to its air quality problems. Since last July, local environmental and community groups have filed three air quality lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency. One of them related to the ag exemption.

Bruce Nilles is an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental legal organization that is heading up the suits.

NILLES: When we received the call from the folks in Fresno, and started looking at the problems in the San Joaquin Valley, it seemed simply incomprehensible that an area of 25,000 square miles, with a relatively low population of only three million people, could really have air pollution problems that were as bad as LA.

KEITH: And the EPA's Jack Broadbent admits that until recently the Valley wasn't a priority.

BROADBENT: We have focused much of our attention in the past in the Los Angeles region, the Phoenix area, the San Francisco Bay Area. It has not received as much attention as it is receiving now. But that clearly has changed.

KEITH: Facing a threat of litigation, the Environmental Protection Agency has changed the Valley's ozone rating from "serious" to "severe." And local officials are thinking about asking the EPA to downgrade the region again to "extreme," a rating currently only held by Los Angeles. That would give Valley officials an extra five years to comply with federal clean air mandates before they risk fines or even losing federal highway funds. No one believes the air will be clean by 2005, the current deadline. For now, Valley residents are coping with the polluted air as best they can.


KEITH: Nine-year-old asthmatic Robbie Baker knocks down the last standing pins and bowls a spare in a recent round at a bowling league practice. He joined the league this year, after his asthma forced him to quit playing soccer.

BAKER: My asthma starts flaring up every time I run or something. And it really feels weird. Because it feels like I'm going to get sick. That's what it feels like right now, sometimes.

KEITH: Now most of Robbie's sports are played indoors. His grandmother, Loretta, has three grandchildren with the disease, and says it makes her angry.

LORETTA: It hurts me, and it's frustrating because I think it's something we have some control over. And I don't say it's 100 percent air quality. But it certainly contributes to these children having asthma.

KEITH: For Living on Earth, I'm Tamara Keith in Fresno, California.



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