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Wednesday, Nov 13 2013 07:22 PM

Ozone improvements could end $29 million penalty

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    By Californian file photo

    Smog can be seen during sunset at the foot of the Grapevine in this file photo.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Valley air officials aren't hanging up a "mission accomplished' banner, but they are celebrating the historic attainment of a federal ozone standard that could mean the end of a $29 million smog penalty charged annually to San Joaquin Valley motorists.

Convincing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to join in their celebration, however, may be another matter.

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On Thursday, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District's governing board is expected to vote to ask the EPA to lift the multi-million dollar penalty, most of which is paid through auto registration fees.

"This is something that for a long time I didn't think would happen in my lifetime," said Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the eight-county air district, which extends north from Kern to San Joaquin County.

"We are the first region in the nation to go from an 'extreme' nonattainment classification to attainment of the one-hour ozone standard," Sadredin said. "It has never happened in the nation's history."

When the EPA in 2004 saddled the district with the "extreme" classification, it meant the agency determined there was no possible way the standards could be met using existing technology, Sadredin said.

"This has been an epic journey for the valley," he said.

To meet attainment, none of the more than two dozen ozone monitors up and down the valley may reach 125 parts per billion of ozone more than three times in a three-year period. Ozone, or smog, a corrosive gas linked to heart and lung illness and even premature death, is created when its precursor chemicals are cooked by the hot summer sun.

August 2011 marked the first time in recorded history that the basin didn't exceed 125 parts per billion during a one-hour period in that historically smoggy month. In contrast, in August 1996, ozone levels crossed the limit 18 times.

In summer 1998, a particularly nasty year for valley air, district ozone monitors recorded 321 violations -- the district calls them exceedances -- of the one-hour standard. And in those years, some violations nearly doubled the allowable ozone concentration, far exceeding the standard.

The few exceedances in recent years have been in the 125 to 135 ppb range, much closer to the limit.

In 2011, Sadredin said, there were just eight exceedances in the district. The following year, there were seven. And this year, there were zero, a stunning result never before seen in the valley.

Sadredin has recommended that the board do two things: Authorize the district to formally ask the federal EPA to declare the valley is in attainment and request that the EPA lift the penalty.

Kerry Drake, a spokesman for the San Francisco office of the EPA, could not be reached Wednesday. However, Drake has said the air district would need to provide complete and convincing documentation before any change in its status could occur.

Clear progress has been made in reducing emissions in the valley, Drake told The Californian this summer.

Sadredin said he expects he and his staff will need to put together a 400- to 500-page report for the EPA.

If history is a guide, the federal agency will not move fast on the issue, he said. But pressure from the public could help.

The $29 million fine translates to a $12 annual fee on people's car registration bills.

Opposition from environmental groups could delay the process, he said.

Tom Frantz, president and co-founder of the Association of Irritated Residents and a board member with the Fresno-based Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, is certainly critical of the air district's celebration.

Frantz takes issue with the district's assertion that no ozone monitor saw more than three exceedances in three years.

An ozone exceedance at the Fresno-Drummond air monitoring site on Aug. 10, 2012, was flagged by the district as an exceptional event due to a fire. If the EPA agrees, the exceedance would not be counted.

"It's a nebulous claim," Frantz said. "And hard to prove."

And if the district doesn't make its case, it could be a deal-breaker.

"That would make four violations at that site," Frantz said. "Three is allowed. Four puts them over."

Frantz also said that when a monitor on private property near Arvin was moved at the request of the property owner in 2010, it likely cut the number of exceedances at that problematic location.

"Everyone knew that monitor was going to be the hardest spot to bring into attainment," he said.

Frantz acknowledges that the air quality in the valley has improved since the 1990s, but he says that improvement has stagnated in the past decade or so.

Despite improvements, the valley continues to have some of the most polluted air in the nation.

Stronger regulation on valley agriculture, dairies and Kern's oil industry will be necessary, he said, before we can begin any sort of celebration.

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