In summary

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, and the air pollution there has had very real impacts on my own health and the health of my family.

By Cynthia Pinto-Cabrera, Special to CalMatters

Cynthia Pinto-Cabrera is a policy assistant with the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, cynthia@calcleanair.org.

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California’s wildfires have resulted in tragic loss of life, iconic landscapes and property, with tens of millions of people exposed to hazardous air conditions for several weeks. Unfortunately, living with unhealthy air is an everyday occurrence in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most polluted air basins in the United States. 

In fact, summer is peak ozone season, so residents in the San Joaquin Valley have been dealt a double whammy of unhealthy levels of ozone and particle pollution. Both pollutants have serious long-term health effects, causing epidemic levels of sickness long before COVID-19 added to our concerns. 

One in four children have asthma in the Valley, the highest rate in the state. Research shows that emergency room visits spike on unhealthy air days, and many lack access to health care and preventative medicine, just to name a few of the impacts we suffer. 

We are often told that pollution is the price of doing business, that we should continue to favor extractive industries like Big Oil and Big Ag if we want a strong economy. What’s rarely mentioned is that air pollution costs the San Joaquin Valley more than $1,600 per person each year, nearly $6 billion. These dollars represent lives lost prematurely, asthma attacks, missed school and work, and other adverse impacts. 

The jobs versus environment debate is a false choice: People in the San Joaquin Valley do not have to choose between a healthy environment and a strong economy with good jobs; we can and should have all of those things. To achieve a just transition requires bold and swift actions, and some were put in motion by the governor’s recent executive orders on electrifying transportation matched with improved community design and diverse mobility options, and powered by renewable energy. 

As an environmental studies student at UC Santa Barbara and working with the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, I learned about these issues from scientific and political angles just a few years ago, even though I grew up in the Valley. What I have learned has compelled me to take action. 

On Oct. 22, the California Air Resources Board will review the San Joaquin Valley’s plan for cleaning up particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller – PM 2.5. The plan has significant outstanding issues, including a shortfall in total incentive funding of up to $2.7 billion and commitments that are not enforceable. Additional emission reduction measures matched with rigorous oversight and enforcement of existing rules are vital components to achieving clean air for the Valley. 

Advocates have conducted research and consulted experts to identify multiple additional measures that could be taken to protect us from particle pollution, such as the phase-out of agricultural open burning, addressing ammonia emissions, tightening rules related to natural gas flaring, further curtailment of residential wood burning,and disallowing interpollutant trading, to name a few. Despite these efforts, timely action has not been taken by regulators.

Particle pollution has had very real impacts on my own and my family’s health: I developed asthma when I was 12 years old, experiencing asthma attacks during swim meets. My brother was born with asthma and as a baby had to use a nebulizer. My father developed asthma from years of working as a diesel truck repairman in Fresno. I have seen the effects of years of breathing unhealthy air firsthand. 

While I understand the importance of maintaining the economy of the Valley, we must move away from business as usual and transition to and enforce the use of cleaner alternatives. We cannot allow the unjust burden of air pollution to cost San Joaquin Valley communities their health and quality of life. 

The California Air Resources Board must exercise its oversight authority and require additional actions from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, while accelerating their enforcement and electrification efforts in the region.

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