Farmers to Clear the Air

In January, air quality boards across the state began restricting agricultural air pollution under the Clean Air Act, thanks to a group of groundbreaking bills signed into law last fall. The state’s $27 billion farm economy has long been a “sacred cow” exempt from pollution control regulation. The new laws, which eliminate that exemption, nearly stalled several times before being pushed through by a coalition led by California State Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who represents a heavily agricultural district.
“What was once an obscure environmental problem is now recognized as a health and economic issue,” says Carolina Simunovic, environmental health project coordinator of the Fresno Metro Ministry. “Mothers tell me that on bad air days, they have to take their kids out of school, or they get sick themselves, and they have to miss work. Now they realize that if the air quality improves, their quality of life gets better in a real way.”
The new laws call for local air boards to evaluate agricultural impacts and to issue permits for dairies and diesel farm equipment such as pumps and tractors. The laws also set up subsidies for farmers who buy cleaner equipment. Despite those subsidies, most farm associations opposed the legislation. But Central Valley activist Tom Frantz says that complying with the laws is pretty easy. “The public is paying for the farmer to comply. I own farm land that my brother farms, and the new pumps we needed cost about $20,000, and they were about 90 percent subsidized.”
“I’m not sure they [agricultural interests] understand how broad this could be,” says Brent Newell, an attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment who participated in last-minute negotiations that saved the legislation. According to Newell, large dairies realized only late in the process that they would have to comply with the new laws and may have to buy mitigation credits to offset emissions from animal wastes. The high cost of such credits, Newell says, could torpedo some plans for “mega-dairies.”
“It covers a lot. It could even cover some pesticides, if they’re volatile organic compounds,” he says. That would be good news for communities affected by pesticide drift (see Terrain, Summer 2003).
The new laws will also regulate ozone, which plagues the Central Valley and has been implicated in a wide variety of lung ailments, including asthma. More than 300,000 valley residents suffer from chronic respiratory conditions, according to The Sacramento Bee.
Among the first to react to the new legislation were officials in the San Joaquin Valley, which, in late December, became the first region in the country to ask to be designated as an area of “extreme non-attainment” under federal air standards. Under its previous “severe” designation, the valley would have had to achieve clean air standards by 2005—or lose $2 billion in federal highway funds. The “extreme” designation buys the valley about five more years before having to meet those standards, says Newell. If the designation is approved, San Joaquin Valley will become only the second region to get the “extreme” rating, which currently applies only to Los Angeles.
Activists like Simunovic say the Florez legislation is welcome, but overdue. “The whole bureaucratic process will take a long time to show any measurable change. [Meanwhile] Fresno County has the highest asthma rates for children in the country.”

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