Breathless in Bakersfield: is the worst air pollution in the US about to get worse?

The Guardian
February 14th, 2017
By: Nate Berg

The bluffs on Panorama Road offer a wide view of the northern half of Bakersfield, which is one of the few major population centres in California’s Central Valley – perhaps the US’ leading agricultural motherlode.

It’s a rare bird’s eye vantage point of this low-slung farm city of roughly 375,000 people, nestled in a bowl created by the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east and part of the California Coast Ranges to the west. On a clear day, the state’s dominant topographical features put the landscape, and one’s place in it, in sobering perspective.

But clear days don’t happen all that often in Bakersfield. Emissions from agriculture, industry, rail freight and road traffic together create one of the country’s worst concentrations of air pollution – a condition exacerbated by geographic and climatic conditions that trap dry, dirty air over this southern section of Central Valley like the lid over a pot.

Oil fields make up most of the view from the top of the bluffs, and the scent of petroleum is often detectable around the city. Dairies populated by hundreds of thousands of cows are scattered throughout the region, and their smell, too, is hard to miss. Massive warehouses and distribution centres on the outskirts of town bring in diesel trucks day and night from Interstate 5, the major north-south route that runs from Canada to Mexico (Los Angeles is about 100 miles to the south). Freight trains hauling oil rumble through the city, and its many refineries billow smoke into the air.

Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County are the unlucky nexus of this pollution. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2016 report found the city’s air to be the worst in the United States for short-term and year-round particle pollution, and the second worst for ozone pollution.

One of the main indicators of poor air quality is the level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air. The WHO’s latest ambient air pollution database ranks nearby Visalia-Porterville worst in the US. Bakersfield’s average reading in one 24-hour period in late January was 40.5 micrograms per cubic metre; over the mountains in somewhat smoggy Los Angeles, that number averages about 12.

Of the wider metro area’s 875,000 people, about 70,000 are said to have asthma, 40,000 cardiovascular disease, and 27,000 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A 2006 study found the health impacts of the region’s air pollution cost the southern section of the Central Valley, known as the San Joaquin, an estimated $3bn (£2.4bn) – or about $1,000 per person per year in a region where about a quarter of the population is in poverty.

Though some improvements have been made in recent years through more stringent air quality standards, cleaner burning engines and efficient industrial machinery, the region continues to struggle with poor air quality and the health problems it brings. Now the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and his appointment of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head in Scott Pruitt who is actively opposed air quality regulations, has many worried that the small but steady improvements to the area’s air quality may all be undone.

Gustavo Aguirre Jr is a prominent local activist who works on environmental justice issues in many of the small, underserved and impoverished farming communities that surround Bakersfield. He says progress has been slow in the San Joaquin Valley, a conservative part of the state that’s heavily influenced by agricultural and oil industry interests, and the Trump administration could further limit that progress.

“The potential of us going backwards 50 or 60 years in air pollution control and mitigation is very scary,” says Aguirre. The worst air in the United States may soon be getting worse.

But the authority tasked with addressing the region’s air quality issues, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, does not seem too concerned, suggesting it has done just about all it can to alleviate the problem.

“Over the last 25 years, air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley – from the stationary sources we regulate – has been reduced by over 80% with some of the toughest air regulations in place anywhere in the nation,” says Seyed Sadredin, the air district’s executive director.

These improvements have come through working with farmers to reduce the burning of agricultural waste, funding trade-ins for older farm equipment, and imposing requirements for cleaner burning furnaces and fireplaces, among other measures. Now, Sadredin argues, it is up to the state of California’s Air Resources Board to better regulate mobile pollution sources – the cars, diesel trucks and freight trains – that are under the state’s purview.

“The biggest pollution source right now that’s holding us back is the nitrogen oxide emissions from the mobile sources that make up 85% of the pollution,” he adds.

Indeed, Sadredin has begun calling for revisions to the Clean Air Act, a landmark federal law overseeing environmental standards in the US, as a way to reduce or even eliminate the estimated $30m a year in sanctions and fines that have been placed on the valley because of its failure to meet federal clean air standards.

Read more at The Guardian.