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Uncle Sam beats SJ Valley senseless with carrot & stick
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You have helped slash the number of non-attainment days for ozone air quality in the San Joaquin Valley from 56 days in 1996 to as little as one day a year. You did it by reducing wood burning, not burning garbage, and doing less idling while driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. It also helps that agricultural burning has virtually been eliminated and diesel trucks and school buses have been retrofitted with cleaner burning engines.

So what is Uncle Sam doing to show you his appreciation?

He’s fined all of us who live in the San Joaquin Valley who drive non-commercial vehicles $12 a car per year.

That comes to $29 million a year that the Environmental Protection Agency is siphoning from the SJ Valley. They collect it when you pay your annual DMV registration fee. The $12 is collapsed into the county/district fees line.

The $12 fine isn’t a burden to most of us. But it is unfair even as federal fines go.

Yes, it is true that we failed to meet the EPA mandate of zero non-attainment days each year. But consider this: We missed it this year because there was one hour of non-attainment at one spot in the SJ Valley. The $12 annual fine doesn’t go away unless we manage to have three years in a row of 100 percent attainment of ozone goals.

The San Joaquin Valley is routinely the worst - or the second worst - air basin in the country when it comes to ozone issues. Vehicles are by far the biggest source of ozone pollution in the SJ Valley. There are 3 million of us living here with 2 million vehicles. By urbanized standards, that isn’t a lot of people or vehicles for a region that is 250 miles long and up to 60 miles wide. However, we are surrounded on three sides by mountains that effectively turn the valley into a narrow trough that takes what prevailing weather systems blow into the valley from the Bay Area to mix into what air pollution we generate.

Research has shown 27 percent of the air pollution in the northern part of the valley - Stockton-Modesto-Merced - blows in from the Bay Area. That figure drops to 11 percent in the mid-valley and 7 percent in Bakersfield.

So why aren’t owners of Bay Area non-commercial vehicles paying an annual fine? Not only can they take water from here and bypass the Delta (think Hetch Hetchy pipeline) and escape court orders diverting water for environmental reasons or flow reductions tied to drought years, but they can pollute our air with impunity as well.

It is our air and we do need to clean it, but having said that a region that, is contributing 27 percent to our misery needs to be held accountable for their lack of action.

While the Bay Area - and San Francisco in particular - has been blessed with natural air conditions that send the smog they generate eastward through the Altamont Pass, Carquinez Straits, and Pacheco Pass. They also use the northern part of the valley as a patsy to meet state housing mandates.

Affordable and workforce housing are non-existent in many Bay Area communities. That is why there has been a great exodus over the past four decades to the valley, turning tens of thousands of people into commuters. Of course, commuting requires driving vehicles — that are the number one culprit for ozone and other air quality issues here including particulates.

It is a double whammy as tougher air standards imposed on the SJ Valley by the state and federal government makes it more costly to locate a business here, even if the labor is cheaper. This isn’t a minor issue given the fact the SJ Valley as a whole has been dubbed “The New Appalachia” by an extensive study by the Congressional Budget Office.

There would be no stomach for imposing a $12 annual fine on the populace if the Appalachia came within a whisker of 100 percent compliance of a federal edict.

The $12 fine, unfortunately, is just the tip of the iceberg of retaliatory measures against the SJ Valley planned by both the state and federal government. Given how it is impossible to obtain the upcoming particulate standards even if you took every vehicle off the road in the SJ Valley, some of what has been decreed needs to be rethought. That is especially true since our farms - another big source of air quality concerns - feed much of this country.



This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.