BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Valley communities avoided a key air-pollution violation for the first time in recorded history, and that could mean a $29 million savings for residents if the federal government lifts a penalty.
The Valley Air District said Thursday that its eight-county region registered no violations of the one-hour ozone standard during the official ozone season, which runs from March through October.
Critics say there's much more to do, but air district members say it's an achievement to celebrate
"This has never been done before in the United States," Kern County Supervisor David Couch told Eyewitness News, "to go from extreme non-attainment to attainment." He's been on the San Joaquin Valley air board for about a year.
Since 2010, the federal government has imposed a $29 million annual fine for air-quality violations. The fine was paid in the form of a $12 addition to DMV registration fees plus increased fees on area businesses.
With no violations this year, the Valley Air District will ask the Environmental Protection Agency to lift the penalty. Money from the penalty has been invested into clean-air projects within the Valley Air District.
For comparison, the Valley Air District had 281 one-hour ozone standard violations in 1996. In 2004, the EPA declared that attaining the clean-air standard was impossible for the valley, according to the air district.
Critics question the district's numbers, and progress on cleaning up smog.
"It's a false claim, basically," Tom Frantz said. He's founder of the Association of Irritated Residents. He's not convinced the district met the requirements for the past three years, saying some possible ozone violations in the Fresno area are being blamed on wild fires and a refinery blaze.
"They can't prove that it's the cause," Frantz says. "So, I don't know what the EPA is going to say." He also questions readings from an air monitor in the Arvin area, after it had to be moved to a different location.
Frantz says valley air is cleaner than it was in 1980 or 1990. "But, we haven't progressed in the recent half dozen years," he says.
The district says there were seven ozone violations in 2012, and then none during the past summer
"The cleanest year on record, is the cleanest year on record," Couch insists.
Steve Worthley, Valley Air District board member and Tulare County supervisor, said the area's air quality is 80 percent better than when the air district formed in 1992.
Worthley's been on the air board for nine years. He says they regulate so-called "stationary sources" of air pollution, and they've provided incentives to reduce mobile sources, with programs like replacing heavy-duty diesel trucks and heavy-duty engines.
But, critics also say there are new standards for ozone that look at longer periods of time and lower amounts of pollutants. Worthley says reaching the one-hour ozone rule is still significant.
"That effort that has improved our air quality there is moving us in the direction that we need to go to get to the newer standards," Worthley told Eyewitness News.
The air district gives credit for the cleaner air to changes residents have made and efforts by Valley businesses, famers and dairy families.
Asked what can be done to cut smog even more, Couch said his priority is even more public awareness. As an example, he points to a fairly recent campaign to put out "Air Alerts" when experts have predicted the area could nudge into the high ozone range.
"People paid attention to those, and they changed the way they did things and their day-to-day lives based on an alert," Couch said. He thinks the effort paid off.
Ozone is the brownish, hazy smog we see in hot summer months.
Along with other board members, Couch says the zero one-hour ozone violations in 2013 is an accomplishment that should be celebrated. He admits there's more work to be done.
"We'll have time to work on all these other things we haven't attained yet, and we'll probably never stop working on them," Couch says. "But, today the people and the businesses in the Valley deserve a pat on the back, because they did something nobody thought was possible."