The air Central Valley residents breathe is getting a bit cleaner.
For the first time in recorded history, the San Joaquin Valley had zero emission violations in 2013 for the standard established under the federal Clean Air Act. Having reached this once thought unattainable goal, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District will submit a request to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asking them to declare the Valley in attainment of the key standard and lift the $29 million penalty mandate which Valley residents have been paying since late 2010.
"Becoming the first and only region in the nation with ‘extreme' classification to meet the standard is an achievement the entire Valley should be very proud of," said Skip Barwick, chair of the Valley Air District's Governing Board.
The EPA has enacted federal guidelines for air quality standards. In 2004, EPA classified the Valley as "extreme" non-attainment for this standard, meaning that reaching the standard, at that time, was deemed impossible.
"It was the worst classification in air quality you could have," said district spokesman Anthony Presto. "At the time there was no way to meet those standards."
If a district is found to violate the one-hour health-based ozone standard, it could trigger an annual $29 million federal penalty. The Valley district has been hit with the penalty for 2010, 2011 and 2012. The district crafted an alternative approach that kept these penalties from going to federal coffers. Under the alternative approach that was approved by EPA, the Valley was able to retain those dollars and invest them in the Valley's local economy to fund clean-air projects in the eight-county region.
Now that the Valley has achieved zero violations, it wants the EPA to lift the classification and reverse the penalty. Penalty fees are assessed on businesses that are not using clean-air technology and practices.
Additionally, Valley residents have a $12 fee added to their vehicle registration to pay a portion of the fine.
The district said it was too early to say if any of the vehicle fees would be rescinded, because it is all dependent on the decision the EPA will make, which could take up to three years.
The district has 35 monitors placed around the Valley that gather readings throughout a given time period. Air alerts are called when the Valley experiences conditions such as increased emissions, high temperatures and stagnant air flow that lead to ozone formation. During these times residents are asked to curtail activities that increase smog-forming emissions.
"Valley residents have consistently ranked air quality as a primary area of concern and have risen to the occasion to do their part. The public's positive response and their efforts to reduce air pollution during Air Alerts was key to eliminating the last few violations that stayed in the way of the Valley meeting this critical standard," said William O'Brien, air district board member and Stanislaus County supervisor.
About 80 percent of the Valley's ozone is caused by mobile sources particularly vehicles idling, according to the district.
Increased ozone levels can cause respiratory and heart problems, especially among children, the elderly and those with existing health concerns.
While the district celebrated the achievement of hitting zero emissions, it acknowledged it still has a ways to go in meeting some of the EPA's stricter standards. The EPA has a newer eight-hour ozone emission standard that has a lower threshold that has proven more difficult for the Central Valley to reach. In 2012, the Valley had 105 hours over the standard. For this year there have been 91 hours recorded over the standard.