Update: At the bottom of this post, I’ve added a timeline attempting to follow the long and winding path that led to cleaner air. We ran out of room in the print newspaper.
Thursday was a pop-the-cork day at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, where officials believe they have met a long-elusive standard to control harmful ozone pollution.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Bob Elliott, who serves on the air district’s Board of Directors, called this a “huge accomplishment” at a press conference, but actually spent most of his prepared remarks blasting the Clean Air Act as both “dysfunctional and unreasonable.”
Elliott doesn’t like the fact that businesses and drivers the past few years have had to share the burden of a $29 million penalty for the Valley’s failure to meet the standard.
That standard, after all, was wiped off the books in 2005 in favor of more stringent standards. Courts ruled, however, that the penalties associated with the old standard would still be applied.
The newer standards, meanwhile, may be “nearly impossible” to comply with, Elliott said, since they are so stringent as to approach naturally-occurring levels of pollution in the atmosphere.
“This has the potential to have huge negative impacts on Valley businesses, Valley agriculture and the way our Valley residents lead their daily lives,” Elliott said.
To be clear, it was the air district’s choice to apply part of the $29 million to Valley drivers. EPA didn’t do that.
Kerry Drake, EPA’s associate director of air quality out of San Francisco, said EPA also didn’t want to have to apply the $29 million in penalties for a standard that no longer exists. That decision was taken out of the agency’s hands by the courts, Drake said.
A long journey
The path toward meeting the ozone standard has been lengthy and difficult to follow:
• 1979: The Environmental Protection Agency sets a one-hour standard for ozone pollution.
• 1990: The Clean Air Act sets deadlines. At this point, there are hundreds of ozone violations in the Valley each year, including 281 violations in 1996.
• 2004: The Valley is deemed to be in “extreme nonattainment,” which means meeting the standard is considered to be impossible with technology existing at the time.
• 2010: The number of violations has steadily declined since the ’90s, but the Valley for the first time becomes subject to potential federal penalties for failing to meet the standard, even though that standard has actually been revoked.
• 2011: Valley drivers begin paying a $12 DMV fee as an alternative to leaving businesses to pay $29 million in penalties.
• 2012: Seven ozone violations are reported.
• 2013: For the first time, zero ozone violations are reported. Officials credit billions of dollars to clean up polluting businesses and efforts by the public to decrease driving.
• What’s next: The EPA must agree that the Valley has achieved the standard. Litigation could follow. And there are other, more stringent ozone standards that we still fail to meet, including an eight-hour standard established in 1997.