FRESNO, Calif. – The 250-mile-long San Joaquin Valley is an economic powerhouse, producing everything from crude oil to grapes, cotton to pistachios.
It’s also a pollution-trapping bowl, bounded on three sides by mountains and punished by meteorological conditions that cause dirty air to stagnate. All eight counties in the valley are in “extreme non-attainment” of the federal smog standard, which has led to penalties. Lung-searing ozone, the main component of smog, is cooked by triple-digit summer heat. Fine particles, tied to both heart and respiratory disease, fill the air on foggy winter days.
In theory, the Clean Air Act was built for places like this.
The 1970 law has succeeded by any number of measures. Its benefits — in the form of improved health and productivity, along with lower medical expenses — have far exceeded its economic costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By 2020, the EPA estimated in a peer-reviewed, congressionally mandated report, it will prevent more than 230,000 premature deaths annually from microscopic particles that can make their way deep into the lungs and bloodstream after being discharged by cars, trucks, industrial sites and agricultural operations.
Even here, the law has had demonstrable effects. In 2015, for example, the valley exceeded the federal ozone standard on 55 days, compared to 90 days in 2005 and 113 days in 1995, data from the California Air Resources Board show. In a place where agriculture and oil rule, however, the act has become a bone of contention, fueled by an anti-regulatory mood in Washington and a curious and controversial alliance of business interests and the local air-pollution control agency.
The head of that agency, Seyed Sadredin, is a favorite of lawmakers who want to soften the act. In his third appearance before Congress since October 2015, Sadredin complained at a House hearing this spring about the law’s “artificial and arbitrary” deadlines, which he said could lead to “devastating federal sanctions” in the valley for pollution beyond his regulatory reach.
“Some of the provisions of the Clean Air Act, although well-intentioned, are leading to unintended consequences,” Sadredin said.
The key elements of this esoteric drama are these: At the same time the valley is violating federal standards, its chief air-pollution cop is deflecting blame and aiding politicians in D.C. eager to pry open a venerable public-health statute.
“[Sadredin] is a state officer,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator in California until last year. “He swears an oath to uphold the Clean Air Act, and yet he is actively working to undermine this important environmental law.”