First air basin fined for high ozone fails again

First air basin fined for high ozone fails again
A haze is seen over Bakersfield. (File photo)
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Pleas to drivers to reduce pollution by limiting car trlps failed to keep smog at acceptable levels in the San Joaquin Valley, meaning the first region in the nation to be fined under federal clean air laws will face penalties until at least 2013.

The valley, a geographical bowl, fell victim to millions of vehicles, thousands of tractors and hundreds of dairies with noxious emissions Thursday that baked under triple-digit temperatures amid a low-pressure system that stilled wind from the Pacific Ocean.

"It was the perfect storm of both temperature and meteorological conditions," said a disappointed Sayed Sadriden, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

The Clean Air Act says the maximum ozone level recorded in an area cannot exceed 125 parts per billion. The eight-hour average level is 75 and the subject of debate since the Obama administration — worried that anti-pollution measures could slow factory work during the economic slowdown — declined this month to lower it to a level scientists agree is healthy.

For the $29 million federal penalty imposed on the valley to be removed, no monitoring station can exceed the ozone standard more than three times in three years. This week's violation means the earliest the fine can be lifted is 2013, if no more readings exceed the limit.

The recording of 154 ppb on Thursday occurred in Clovis, east of Fresno in the central part of the valley. Normally the highest smog levels are recorded further south near Bakersfield, due to prevailing winds that blow from San Francisco to the southeast and trap pollutants against the Tehachapi Mountains.

On Thursday, however, a rare weather phenomenon recently described as the "Fresno Eddy" created a swirl of counter-clockwise wind between Bakersfield and Clovis. Pollutants at the southern tip of the valley rode the eddy to a point east of Fresno where the violation occurred.

"It happens a few times a year," said Sadriden. "Unfortunately, yesterday was one of those days."

The agricultural region has flirted with an ozone violation since schools opened in late August and harvest season kicked into high gear. The district had launched a media blitz hoping that by raising awareness drivers might curb trips and limit idling to get out from under the $29 million annual fine, the brunt of which will be paid as a $12 fee added to vehicle registrations.

The valley never has gone a full calendar year under the federal ozone limit, but this marked the latest date that a violation has occurred. Officials were especially disheartened since a break in the triple-digit heat was expected Saturday, and ozone levels could drop next week.

"We fell two days short of making it, so it's disappointing in that respect," Sadriden said. "But this is the latest we've come in history, so that's good."

The valley in recent years has made strides in reducing emissions at factories and on farms but suffers because pollution generated as far north as San Francisco is sucked into the bowl.

The toxin in question is ground-level ozone, the ingredient that forms smog. In the high atmosphere it protects the Earth from harmful rays, but at ground level it can blister lungs like a sunburn affects skin. Ozone is created when car emissions and fumes from solvents react under heat and sunlight.

Despite excessive summer heat in the valley, the dangerously high levels of ozone did not begin forming this year until back-to-school traffic began in late August, leading some to wonder whether a delayed school start might ease pollution.

While many factors are taken into account in school scheduling — such as athletics, ending the semester before Christmas break and teachers' summer continuing education needs — the Fresno County school superintendent said the air problems are creating a reason to rethink the issue.

"It's a tough, tough deal, but this whole thing with air pollution may change the way we do business," said Larry Powell, who manages 32 school districts. "A lot of things have to take place, but we need to look at it."

The region has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, and the officials are warning people with heart and lung problems to avoid exertion until the weather changes.