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By Steven Mayer/ The Californian
BY MARK GROSSI The Fresno Bee
For the first time on record, summer passed here without a dangerous peak in dirty air. Could it finally be time to celebrate a historic moment -- the San Joaquin Valley no longer in violation of the federal one-hour ozone standard?
It's not a done deal yet.
Air-quality activists say the local air district still must explain a sudden improvement in the notorious smog trap of Arvin after an air monitor was moved.
"You can't just move a monitor and claim you cleaned up the air," said Tom Franz, the Kern County leader of the activist group Association of Irritated Residents.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is working on an explanation and will submit it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which will review it.
The district did a lot of extra monitoring over the summer around Arvin. Officials say the preliminary data shows the air has cleaned up, even next to the site of the old monitor.
If the analysis holds up and ozone doesn't spike in October, the valley appears to have achieved the one-hour federal standard.
An exceedance at this point in the year seems unlikely, experts say, since the air is much cleaner now than it was a dozen years ago -- the last time ozone breached the one-hour threshold in October.
But why all the fuss over the one-hour standard? It was abolished in 2005 and replaced by the more health-protective eight-hour standard. Federal law still required the valley to make the old standard by 2010.
Like every other ozone cleanup deadline in the past, the valley missed it. A $29 million annual penalty was triggered.
The penalty, paid mostly by valley residents in vehicle registrations, will go away if the standard is achieved. And the valley's public-relations nightmare might be at a turning point after years of headlines describing this region as one of the dirtiest air basins in the country.
In fact, this 25,000-square-mile geologic bowl has long been one of the two most polluted places in the country, the other being the South Coast Air Basin in Southern California.
The bowl shape and hot, stagnant summers allow pollution to build up for days. In stifling 1996, the valley exceeded the one-hour standard 56 times. Ozone remained above the health threshold for more than 280 hours.
This would be the first year that the valley puts up zeroes for those numbers.
"I know it seemed hopeless years ago," said district Executive Director Seyed Sadredin. "But businesses have invested billions of dollars in technology. Residents are paying attention to our air alerts. And we have many of the most advanced rules in the country."
Nobody is saying the air-quality fight is over, least of all health advocates and air-quality activists. It may take another decade to make the tougher eight-hour standard, which this region has exceeded more than 80 times this year.
Health advocates say ozone remains a real problem here. It's a corrosive gas that attacks the lungs, triggering asthma, bronchitis and heart problems. The gas is particularly harmful to people with sensitive lungs as well as children and the elderly.
Air-quality activists say the district should not be taking bows for air advances. The toughest rules are often started by environmental lawsuits that force the EPA and the district to take action, they say. Farm pollution rules are among the examples they cite.
Air-quality lawsuits have been filed almost continuously over the last 12 years, including a challenge to the valley's attainment of the PM-10 standard, aimed at coarse particles such as dust.
Activists lost the PM-10 challenge, but they forced regulators to defend decisions that waived high readings due to unusual wind events.
No one has talked yet about suing over attainment of the one-hour federal ozone standard. One possible issue is the Arvin monitor.
At times, the old monitor showed Arvin was the valley's ozone hot spot -- sometimes it was the nation's ozone hot spot.
The monitor was moved after the California Air Resources Board lost its lease in a squabble over a different air-quality issue with the landowner, Arvin-Edison Water Storage District.
The farmers on the district's board were not pleased with new diesel engine rules, which require expensive filters and truck replacement. State air board officials came before the board to answer questions about the science involved, but board members were unmoved.
"The answers were not satisfying," said general manager Steve Collup at the time. "So board members decided they didn't want to be part of this monitoring anymore."
State officials moved the site two miles away near a school. They took readings from both old and new monitors in 2010, as they prepared to shut down the old site.
Ozone concentrations were 11 percent lower at the new site, and it showed no exceedances of the one-hour standard that year. At the old site, however, the one-hour threshold was breached twice.
"It's an outrage to pretend there's nothing wrong with this picture," Franz said.
The district this summer placed more than 20 temporary monitors all through the area east of Bakersfield and in Arvin, including a spot across the street from the notorious monitor.
District leader Sadredin says a preliminary look at the data shows the whole area has cleaned up. One of the temporary monitors was set up across the street from the Arvin-Edison district site. Sadredin said its readings actually were lower than the ones from the new monitoring site.
The EPA would make the ruling on the valley achieving the ozone standard. The agency will study the district's analysis, said Kerry Drake, an associate director in the agency's regional air division in San Francisco.
"You can't make a standard by moving a monitor," he said in answer to a question. "We will look closely at the report."