How Will California Clean its Air?

Multiple oil refineries on the California coast contribute to the state's persistent air-quality problems. Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

Logan Pollard
California News Service

LOS ANGELES – Southern California has long been plagued with dirty air – so dirty that clean-air advocates claim the entire South Coast basin has never been in full compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. But today, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is to vote on developing a long-term plan for better air quality by 2023.

To that, Evan Gillespie, the Sierra Club’s California state director, said, “Don’t hold your breath.”

Despite California’s clean-energy strides, Gillespie said, fossil-fuel interests have been fighting to keep things as they are.

“The refineries for decades have been able to avoid installing life-saving pollution controls,” he said, “so that’s one really critical outcome that we’re seeking, to ensure that the oil industry – which has no shortage of profit – takes the actual time and investment to protect its neighbors.”

The South Coast district includes four counties – Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino – with about 17 million residents. There are multiple air-pollution control districts throughout the state – including the San Joaquin Valley, San Diego, Santa Barbara and the Bay Area – all with separate plans and timelines based on their own air quality and deadlines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, with a new EPA chief in the works and an administration optimistic about the use of fossil fuels, including what’s being termed “clean coal,” Gillespie said he is worried.

“When the coal industry talks about ‘clean coal,’ they’re ignoring mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides – all the other pollutants that directly impact people’s health,” he said. “And so, even if the industry could capture its CO2, you’re still left with significant air-quality problems that stem from the burning of coal.”

People often think of vehicles, ports and refineries as the contributors to air pollution. However, Christian Garza lives in the southeastern California town of Mecca, where farming is the big industry, and said crop-spraying is part of life there for everyone.

“If we’re lucky, it’s in the summer when the kids aren’t there, but sometimes it’s during the middle of the school season, so they have to breathe it in,” said Garza, youth director of the Sierra Club’s My Generation campaign. “It’s just not very healthy for them.”

Garza, 18, lives with asthma and said he once had a lung collapse as a result of the disease. According to the Sierra Club, more than 5,000 people a year die prematurely in Southern California from air pollution.

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