The Environmental Protection Agency proposed on Jan. 6 2023 to lower the federal limit for fine particulate pollution. If the EPA's proposal is finalize, the polluted San Joaquin Valley has a long way to go to meet the standard. Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

What's at stake:

The California Air Resources Board estimates the new PM2.5 standard will prevent thousands of premature deaths each year statewide. But Valley air regulators have spent decades failing to attain EPA air quality standards.

On Friday, the country’s top air regulator proposed to strengthen federal rules for one of the Valley’s most dangerous and common air pollutants: PM2.5 particles. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposal would require drastic pollution cuts from local air regulators – the Valley air district and the California Air Resources Board. 

San Joaquin Valley residents suffer the country’s highest exposures to this hazardous type of pollution, which attacks every organ in the human body and kills more people locally than car accidents every year. The Valley air basin, rated last year as the most polluted in the United States, had a PM2.5 concentration of 17.6 micrograms per liter of air, over 200% the national average, according to the most recent EPA review from 2021. 

According to the EPA’s proposal on Friday, the air district and CARB would be responsible for cutting that number down to 9-10 micrograms per liter across the basin’s eight counties. 

According to Dr. Catherine Garoupa White, one of the Valley’s top air watchdogs, the air district needs to clean up their act to meet this new clean air standard.

Rather than “kicking the can down the road,” said Garoupa White, the executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, “the air district needs to focus on robust enforcement and close regulatory loopholes, especially for developers, the oil industry, and agriculture.”

The San Joaquin Valley remains the only air basin in the United States that has not met the EPA’s oldest annual PM2.5 standard, from 1997. The air district and CARB took more than a decade to submit an acceptable plan to the EPA for that rule, according to official documents. (That plan later failed.)

While federal regulators estimate billions of dollars in health benefits from Friday’s proposal, such comforts may be decades away for Valley residents. If the air district’s historical pace for submitting clean air plans and attaining air quality standards holds out, people from Fresno to Kern county may not see an EPA-approved plan for Friday’s announcement until 2032, or attainment until the 2040s. 

The air district could not be reached for comments. 

Proposal backtracks on Trump admin’s air quality decisions

The EPA’s proposal on Friday is a reversal of the Trump’s administration’s decisions on air quality. 

The current PM2.5 standard has been in place since 2012, and was most recently reaffirmed by the EPA in 2020, at the tail end of the Trump administration. In June 2021, the Biden administration announced it was reconsidering that 2020 decision. Within 60 days, the EPA cleaned out the Trump-era science advisory committee, which claimed they didn’t know enough to connect PM2.5 concentrations to “public welfare,” and replaced that seven-member board with a new panel of experts. 

Friday’s proposed rule follows the recommendations of the Biden administration’s new science committee to create a more health-protective PM2.5 standard – the key action the Trump administration avoided.  

Citing the EPA’s panel of health experts, the Biden administration estimates their proposed revision to the health standard would prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths per year, 270,000 lost workdays per year, and result in as much as $43 billion in net health benefits in 2032.

For California, the state air resources board estimates that the benefits of clean air – in terms of reducing premature death – would be even larger than the EPA’s nationwide estimate. In a statement, CARB urged the EPA to be more aggressive in their commitment to cut PM2.5 pollution.

“Given scientific studies demonstrating health impacts down to the level of 8 micrograms, CARB encourages EPA to consider further strengthening of the proposal,” the state agency said in a statement.

The American Lung Association also urged the EPA on Friday to set a stronger annual PM2.5 standard. 

“We are deeply disappointed that EPA’s proposal today did not include a standard of 8 micrograms per liter in the proposed range of options for the annual standard,” said Harold Wimmer, President and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a statement.

“Today’s proposal from EPA to update the national annual limits on particulate matter pollution misses the mark and is inadequate to protect public health from this deadly pollutant,” Wimmer added.

Garoupa White said she sees the EPA’s standard-setting role for PM2.5 pollution as a bellwether for more enjoyable lives in the Valley. 

“I’m encouraged that the standard is being tightened,“ she said. “We need a real transition from fossil fuels to an equitable, sustainable and regenerative, and caring economy.”

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Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.

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