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California Central Valley Pollution: San Joaquin Air Basin Works To Avoid Massive Fine

California Central Valley Pollution

TRACIE CONE   08/23/11 08:41 PM ET   AP

FRESNO, Calif. — Air quality officials in one of the nation's most polluted basins are appealing to residents' sense of civic responsibility to try to save the region from an extension of a federal fine for ozone pollution.

The San Joaquin air basin in California's Central Valley became the first in the nation to be fined last year for failing to meet the federal deadline for reducing ozone pollution.

Now as an ozone-trapping summer temperature inversion begins forming across the valley, officials have launched a media blitz to get the word out that short-term personal sacrifices might help avoid the same fate in 2011.

"All it takes is for one place in the valley to go over for one hour and it jeopardizes everybody's attainment status," said Sayed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

The valley must record three clean years in a row for the $29 million annual fine to end. It is being paid by an assessment on businesses and through a new $12 annual vehicle registration fee for drivers from Stockton to Bakersfield.

So far this year there have been no violations. But with temperatures forecast to exceed 100, a volatile combination of stagnant air and back-to-school traffic exists through Sunday, officials warn. The district has asked businesses to allow employees to telecommute and is asking drivers to reduce trips and avoid idling engines at fast-food windows and schools.

"It would be heartbreaking if we violate because we're so close," said Sadredin, whose agency is using Twitter, email and text message alerts as well as a media blitz to spread the warnings.

The valley that is home to some of the most notoriously polluted air in the country was hit by the EPA with the fine last October for missing the deadline to comply with the Clean Air Act limit on ozone pollution. Its trough-like shape means that pollution from northern areas is sucked south, where most of the violations historically have been recorded.

Ground-level ozone is created when the sun's rays hit pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds that are components of motor vehicle exhaust, solvents, the many large-scale dairy operations and gasoline vapors. Exposure has been linked to premature death, asthma and cardiopulmonary problems.

Air officials complained to the federal government that fining the San Joaquin Valley was unfair given tremendous reductions in both ozone and particulate pollution over the past 15 years. In 1996, for instance, the region failed to meet federal health standards on 56 days. The region missed by fewer than seven days for each of the past three years.

In an agricultural region that has endured scorching, stagnant summers with the massive Sierra Nevada obscured behind a wall of brown smog, the improvement is becoming apparent.

The mountains have been increasingly more visible over the last several years as cutbacks in agricultural burning and dust went into effect along with school bus retrofitting, farm diesel engine upgrades, and strict limits on winter fireplace use.

"The challenge that we have is these mountains," said district spokeswoman Jaime Holt. "We get these inversion levels and it's perfect for creating and trapping pollution. We are not polluting as much as other areas, but it has no place to go."

The 2010 violations that triggered the fine occurred during back-to-school week after eight months of no problems, Holt said.

Tuesday was the first day of the alert, and officials said it was unclear yet whether drivers were heeding the warnings. Though the ozone rate recorded in North Fresno, one of the stations with the highest violations, moved from 16 ppb at 8 a.m. Monday to 23 ppb at the same school commute time Tuesday, inversion layers trapping pollution could be contributing to the buildup.

The highest rate recorded in Fresno on Monday was 70 ppb at 4 p.m. If it exceeds 125 ppb for any one-hour period the region will be in violation and have to start over in 2012, which means the fine will remain for at least four years.

There is an upside to the fine. All of the money comes back to the air district to use for other pollution-reducing programs, such as a popular electric-for-gasoline lawnmower exchange.

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Filed by Anna Almendrala  |