CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct an error and provide additional information about current law. The San Joaquin Valley Air district has begun phasing out open burning of agricultural materials.

Corrected Mar 5, 2021

While California air quality officials recently set a deadline to phase out nearly all agricultural burning in the San Joaquin Valley by 2025, it doesn’t necessarily mean preventable smoke will stop choking rural communities soon.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has until August to outline a plan to meet the state standard. It could choose to implement strict standards sooner rather than later and launch a public notification program to bolster enforcement efforts and protect public health. Or, it could not.

Clean-air advocates are skeptical that the district’s plan and enforcement efforts will reduce smoke and protect public health in an immediate or meaningful way.

“We are being asked to wait another four years to see if this is going to happen or not,” said Catherine Garoupa White, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, which represents 70 environmental justice, public health and community organizations.

“The greatest challenge in the San Joaquin Valley is: How do we get actual enforcement at any of the sources to truly bring emissions down?” she said.

While the California Air Resources Board sets standards, enforcement is the responsibility of the district.

Public trust in the Valley air district appeared weak at the CARB hearing on Feb. 25. Residents accused the district of downplaying public health risks of smoke from open burns, of being disingenuous, and of catering to industry and polluters instead of prioritizing public health.

“It’s all about the cost to industry and nothing about public health or potential cost savings,” White said of the district’s priorities.

One resident at the Feb. 25 hearing told board members that an asthma attack is like having a plastic bag placed over her lungs, and that nearby burn piles or field burning trigger those attacks.

In a December report, the Valley air district proposed less stringent standards than what the state board adopted, stating that the agricultural industry faces financial constraints and alternatives to burning cost more money. The district also said it is committed to working with the state to allocate state funds to develop alternatives to burning and create financial incentives for farmers.

The district, in that same report, failed to acknowledge any financial costs borne by families or the public for health effects, like high rates of asthma.

“The economic analysis the air district did does not account for families who have to lose days of work to take care of sick kids. It doesn’t account for the money that schools are losing because of that same reason. The analysis didn’t even include the health systems cost for people who have to go to the ER due to an asthma attack,” said Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network.

“Families in the Valley cannot wait four more years,” Martinez said, urging CARB to put an end to the practice immediately.

“The district is constantly seeking out opportunities to reduce pollution and improve public health in the San Joaquin Valley, including working (with) the California Air Resources Board and Valley farmers to transition remaining open burning of agricultural materials expeditiously,” the district said in an emailed statement.

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control Officer Samir Sheikh heads the district.

A matter of political will

The district was mandated in 2003 by Senate Bill 705 to begin phasing out open burning of agricultural materials. The district has worked with farmers to phase out the practice for certain crops, cutting total tons of material burned under permit in the last 17 years.

However, open agricultural burning remains a significant contributor to PM 2.5 pollution in the valley, despite the growing scientific evidence that exposure to elevated levels of PM 2.5 pollution leads to serious health problems, particularly for children and older adults.

It did increase restrictions on agricultural burning in the last two decades, reducing the total tons of material burned by half, and issuing fines — sometimes as significant as $20,000 — to operations that burn without a permit.

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air quality in the country and smoke pollution from open ag burning is a significant contributor.

That the district has allowed burning to continue is indicative of a district that caters to industry and a state board that doesn’t intervene in district actions, White and others said.

“The financial and technical feasibility is not the issue,” said Cynthia Pinto-Cabrera, a Valley native and asthmatic who works as a policy assistant for the Air Quality Coalition. “What has been lacking is the political will.”

In 2017, approximately 6 tons per day of PM2.5 were produced by open agricultural burning statewide, of which about 36% or 2 tons occurred in the San Joaquin Valley, according to a CARB staff report.

Vineyard removal is responsible for more than 70% of all permitted burns in the Valley. Other contributors include small-acre orchard or citrus orchard removal.

“These emissions are significant, not just in terms of potential implications for attaining air quality standards, but also for their impacts on local communities,” the state report says.

“Many of the issues raised have solutions. Wires in wine grapes can be removed by hand, and it is simply a matter of paying the labor costs,” Pinto-Cabrera said at the hearing. “These investments are worth the public health protections for our already overburdened communities.”

The air district director is under the direction of a board of directors made up of a dozen elected officials, some of whom work in agriculture, and two public health experts.

The state air board could set stricter requirements for the district. White has little faith that will happen.

CARB staff recommended that the district prohibit burning at larger orchards and vineyards by January 2021 and a lower threshold by January 2022, but CARB did not set those timelines to phase out all agricultural burning in its Feb. 25 resolution.

“At a high level, are they going to be watching? Yes,” White said. “In terms of actually getting them to enforce their rules, that’s quite a stretch. They’ll talk. They won’t force the Valley to do anything.”

The district currently only allows burning of certain crops under limited weather conditions meant to protect public health. The total amount of permitted burning in the Valley has reduced since 2003 when an estimated 1 million tons was set afire.

Total tons burned under 2020 permits was closer to 550,000.

The actual amount burned and the associated particulate matter released into the air via smoke is likely much higher, as district data doesn’t take into account unpermitted burns.

“They’re not tracking what they don’t know about,” said Shayda Azamian, a climate policy coordinator with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Part of the problem, she said, is the district’s air quality monitoring infrastructure is urban-centric and there aren’t many monitors in rural areas.

Notification a key to enforcement of ag burning

Thomas Helme of Modesto with Valley Improvement Projects said he knows many farmers who care about the health of the Valley, including a grower at an almond orchard who has been using the alternative method of chipping since 1989. He also knows there are illegal burns; he’s seen them.

“I know some. They burn them in smaller piles. They burn them early in the morning, try to do it quick, sometimes throwing in non-organic materials so they don’t have to dump it,” Helme told CARB at the hearing.

“Enforcement is a big concern,” Martinez said, adding that members of her organization have told her that farmers sometimes take advantage of a neighbor’s burn permit and ignite their own burn piles at the same time.

“How many unauthorized burns are happening? We might never know,” Martinez said.

Residents have repeatedly asked the air district to notify communities when a burn permit has been issued and to have a searchable database of burn permits on the district website. Or, to require farmers to notify neighbors when they are about to burn.

At the Feb. 25 hearing, Assembly Member Hector De La Torre, D-Los Angeles, advocated for the use of public notifications as a tool of enforcement.

If a searchable online database was available, the district “would have the eyes and ears of the whole Valley to notice if there is an unpermitted burn,” he said. “Notice and enforcement go hand in hand.”

Currently, “enforcement is weak,” Azamian told The Fresno Bee. “Even when there are no burn days, no burning, no residential burning allowed. Residents have still seen ag burns happen and the district doesn’t know about it. The district doesn’t know what is happening in their jurisdiction.”

In response to these concerns, Valley air district chief communications officer Jaime Holt told The Fresno Bee in an email that the agency uses field surveillance activities and rapid complaint response to ensure that enforcement of agricultural burning is stringent and proactive, with “the vast majority of complaints being responded to on the same day as receipt.”

Also in the email, Holt said that severe limitations on burning last year resulted in “ongoing and significant concerns from growers throughout the Valley regarding their ability to continue farming due to the restrictions.”

The district declined to commit to launching a public notification system.

“While our focus is on now transitioning the remaining agricultural burning to new and developing alternatives, the district will be evaluating options for addressing the interest in having additional information made available to the public regarding agricultural burning,” Holt said in the email.

Advocates insist notification is an essential tool to transition away from open agricultural burns, and say that transition needs to be swift.

“There needs to be much stronger enforcement, more repercussions and deterrence to operations that are burning, and a robust public notification system,” Azamian said. “We want an accelerated timeline to have actual mandated health-protective measures as soon as possible.”

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