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Thursday, Sep 23 2010 10:00 PM

Drive a car? You may pay more for our bad air

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A steady flow of traffic is a fairly common sight around Bakersfield these days, including this intersection of Golden State and Union avenues Thursday afternoon.

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BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

If you live between Arvin and Stockton, the air you breathe may be picking your pocket.

The San Joaquin Valley will soon pay nearly $29 million in fines for violating federal air-quality standards -- and if you own a car, the money may come directly from your bank account.

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OUR AIR

Smog and ozone — Smog is formed when emissions from tailpipes and factories react in sunlight. Ozone, the key ingredient in smog, can exacerbate asthma and other lung conditions.

Red days in the valley In 2008, the valley portion of Kern County experienced 41 "red days," meaning the Air Quality Index indicated "unhealthy" air for everyone on those days, with sensitive groups at risk of more serious effects. The high number of red days was attributed, in part, to the large number of wildfires that year.

Last year, the number of red days dropped to 21. And so far this year there have been just seven red days in Kern County and 10 district-wide.

Imported smog — Up to 10 percent of the valley's ozone is blown in from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Source: San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District

Ironically, the valley's air this summer was the cleanest on record, according to officials with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. But in mid-August when temperatures climbed past 110, the Air District recorded four violations of the one-hour ozone standard -- a federal Clean Air Act standard that measures the peak level of ozone during any one-hour period.

Just one violation anywhere in the eight-county air district was enough to bring on the penalty.

Rather than assessing the valley's largest stationary polluters, such as oil refineries, power plants and agricultural-production facilities, Air District officials are proposing to add approximately $10 to $12 to vehicle registrations in the valley.

"This is a fair thing to do in our view, since 80 percent of our smog comes from mobile sources," said Seyed Sadredin, Air District director.

Sadredin noted that industries in the valley have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to upgrade their pollution-control technology. And it has helped place them among the cleanest stationary sources in the country, he said.

"If anything, they deserve an award," Sadredin said.

The Air District has no jurisdiction over mobile sources -- auto and truck emissions -- but it does have the authority to assess valley residents through DMV fees.

Kerry Drake, assistant director of the air division for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 9, said penalties associated with ozone levels have been on the horizon for a long time, since 1990 when the Clean Air Act was amended to deal specifically with ozone.

So the 2010 deadline for attainment should come as no surprise, he said.

Nevertheless, Drake said EPA is sensitive to how difficult it is for the valley to consistently meet ozone standards in an air basin lined on three sides by mountains and plagued by a climate that tends to lock pollution in the valley.

He echoed Sadredin in lauding the efforts of valley businesses, and noted that EPA has offered the Air District flexibility in how attainment is measured and fees are assessed.

Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson, who also serves on the Air District board, said he has some research to do before he decides whether he will vote to pass the cost on to DMV vehicle registrations or send the bill to valley businesses.

Neither option is attractive, he said. But given that most of the valley's ozone is generated by motor vehicles, the DMV option may be the lesser of two evils.

"It's a dollar a month, not a huge amount of money," Watson said. "But the other side of the coin is I don't want people to think every time we have a problem, we throw another fee or surcharge on them."

Either way, the $29 million will go directly to the valley Air District to use in continued efforts to clean the air. Potential uses include establishing financial incentives for trading in older, polluting vehicles or purchasing cleaner-running vehicles.

Taft City Councilman Randy Miller, who serves on the Air District board, also appeared to be leaning toward the DMV alternative, however reluctantly.

"No matter who pays, it's going to be awful," he said.

Miller said he's new to the air board, so he's still familiarizing himself with the process. But he said he feels the valley has been placed in a no-win situation.

"It's a ridiculous amount of money," he said. "And it's not doing anything to solve the problem, which is unique to us. We can't change the weather."

Frustration with the standards is building. Even Sadredin used the word "archaic" in reference to the one-hour ozone standard.

Some wonder whether the standards are truly within reach, short of a revolutionary and unlikely move among consumers toward electric or other other low- or non-polluting vehicles.

"Considering our meteorological conditions, it's likely that we will continue to exceed the standards," Watson said. "I don't know how all of this is going to shake out. It's a challenge."

The proposal to assess vehicle owners in the valley will be considered by the Air District's governing board on Oct. 21.

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