California Town a Magnet for Smog

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Some of the worst smog in the nation can be found in a tiny central California town that has no freeways, no heavy industry, and not much traffic. Arvin is mostly agricultural, but it records more ozone violations than any other city in the country.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, a researcher takes the cutting edges off prison weapons. But first, some of the worst smog in the nation can be found in a tiny central California town that has no freeways, no heavy industry, not much traffic. Arvin is mostly agricultural, but it records more ozone violations than any other city in the country.

From member station KQED, Sasha Khoka reports on the community and how it's reacting to the state's plan to deal with the problem.

SASHA KHOKA: Arvin sits in the shadow of the Tehachapi Mountains. In "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck described watching those mountains from the Weed Patch Labor Camp. Steinbeck wrote: The light stood up faintly behind them, colored the mountain rims with a washed red.

Today, it's hard to see those mountains. They are usually masked by a thick cloud of smog. The reason - geography. When the sun cooks up smog-forming gases from cars, dairies and factories, they can blow downwind from cities up and down California's 400-mile long Central Valley and get trapped against those mountains.

Dr. JAMES O'BRIEN(ph) (Resident, Arvin): I sure wish that we could, you know, just bring in a big fan and blow it all over the mountains and get rid of it.

KHOKA: That's Dr. James O'Brien. Right now he's examining a child with asthma.

Dr. O'BRIEN: Take a deep breath.

KHOKA: He's worried about the health consequences of Arvin's smog. There is scientific evidence that ozone air pollution exacerbates asthma. And as Dr. O'Brien will tell you, Arvin is no stranger to the disease. Half the doctors at a local clinic here have asthma themselves, including Dr. O'Brien.

He says he regularly sees patients with severe asthma who have trouble eating or sleeping because it's so hard to breathe.

Dr. O'BRIEN: Especially for some of these kids that you see how severe their problems are and the medications that we're giving them constantly, you just want to say to the parents, why don't you move, go some place where they have good air quality and see how - if that improves their quality of life. But for a lot of these people, they just don't have those kind of options, those kind of resources.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Ms. ROSA CISNEROS(ph) (Resident, Arvin): Speaking foreign language.

KHOKA: Rosa Cisneros has lived in Arvin for seven years. She and her infant niece Brianny(ph) both have severe asthma.

Ms. CISNEROS: (Through translator) I can't breathe. I feel like everything inside of me is squeezing tight like a balloon without any air.

KHOKA: Cisnero is sitting on a couch in a tiny converted garage. Her elderly mother, Elena Gomez(ph) sits nearby, carefully peeling the spines off edible cactus. She plans to sell it at a nearby flea market.

Ms. ELENA GOMEZ (Resident, Arvin): (Through translator) This is what we live on since neither of us can work in the fields anymore.

KHOKA: Each morning, Rosa Cisneros breathes through a machine that pumps a steam of oxygen and medicine into her lungs. Her asthma is so bad, she can barely walk a block to her sister's house.

Ms. CISNEROS: (Through translator) I've had to stop everything I was doing. I was going to adult school to get my GED, and I had to stop that, too.

KHOKA: Many of Arvin's leaders say regulators shouldn't be able to ignore the Toll they believe pollution is taking here.

Ms. RAJI BRAR (Councilwoman, Arvin, California): It doesn't seem to be a health crisis to them.

KHOKA: That's Arvin's city councilwoman Raji Brar. She owns the Subway sandwich shop here. It's a gathering place for many locals.

Ms. BRAR: All right. Your total is going to be $2.49.

KHOKA: Brar also represents Arvin on the San Joaquin Valley Air board. She was horrified when her colleagues on the board took a vote not to speed up efforts to address Arvin's dirty air, but instead to delay the ozone cleanup deadline here by more than a decade.

Ms. BRAR: I mean, I think, the obvious choice would be no, no extensions. Let's work towards getting cleaner air. I mean, if your back is against the wall, you're going to come up with some innovation. You're going to work harder. If you're given an extension, you're basically just going to be able to relax and wait and let time go by. I mean, there's no logical reason for that.

KHOKA: But Don Hunsaker says there is a logical reason for it. He's an environmental scientist with the local air district who helped author the plan, asking the EPA for an 11-year cleanup extension. He says even using every scientific option available now, the air in Arvin could not be cleaned up by the original EPA deadline of 2013. That means the region would have faced penalties from the federal government.

Mr. DON HUNSAKER (Environmental Scientist; Plan Development Supervisor, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District): We looked at scenarios like what if we bought everybody the cleanest diesel truck that was available and replaced their old one and crushed the old one. And even if we did all that, we still didn't have enough emission reductions to demonstrate that we could attain healthy air in the Arvin monitor location.

KHOKA: Hunsaker says the biggest sources of the San Joaquin Valley smog-forming gases are vehicles, especially diesel trucks. The local air district can't set emission standards for those vehicles. And even though California has the toughest diesel emission standards in the nation, most of those standards only apply to new engines and don't yet require companies like trucking fleets to retrofit dirty old engines.

Back in Arvin, Valley Air District board member Raji Brar says regulators could do more. For example, they could bar the dirtiest engines from the road on high-ozone days.

Ms. BRAR: I mean, this is America. You know, if we can't do it, I don't see who else can. I mean, we have this great technology. People can send e-mails and iPhones and iPods and all these, but we can't clean up the air. I don't know. I just don't buy it.

KHOKA: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't buying it either. But even his disapproval of the extended deadline doesn't seem to be going anywhere. State air board officials say the extension will go ahead and sources at the EPA say federal approval is likely this fall.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khoka.

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