ARVIN -- From his office on the town's central thoroughfare, Sal Partida has a view of brown, soupy haze.
"There's a mountain there, believe it or not," Partida said, pointing to the foothills. "This is like a holding tank -- everything from San Francisco down stays here."
Partida and the Committee for a Better Arvin are trying to create a "bucket brigade," a system that would allow residents to collect their own air quality readings. Members hope their self-collected data will press government authorities to improve the air in this dusty farm town, home to the worst smog in the country.
"In order for us to get a good reading, we need to monitor the air in our city," Partida said. "If we have to get our own monitors, we're going to do it."
The local effort coincides with residents learning that the California Air Resources Board moved its air monitoring station to a location on the outskirts of town.
Partida and his group say that won't give an accurate reading of Arvin's pollution, and could result in officials underestimating just how bad the air is.
"It's a fake reading, and it made us angry," Partida said. "We'd hope that our government agencies would be protecting us, but instead they're protecting themselves."
Before the monitor was moved, the Arvin area had the highest ozone reading in the San Joaquin Valley: 104 parts per billion (ppb), according to Gennet Paauwe, the board's spokeswoman. The federal Clean Air Act calls for maximum ozone levels of 75 ppb. While the new Arvin location reads about 11 percent cleaner, there is still a valley location -- Clovis -- with a reading at 103 ppb, Paauwe said.
"When we look at regulations and the worst areas in terms of peak values, those sites are exceedingly similar," Paauwe said. "What we do is regionwide; we don't base our rules on one site."
The Arvin monitor was moved two miles to Di Giorgio Elementary School because the state lost the lease on the prior site's land, according to the state board. The new site started monitoring in November 2009, but readings were done at both locations until October 2010.
When monitors move, the Environmental Protection Agency requires the new location to have "the same scale" of representation, said Matt Lakin, the manager of the air quality analysis office for the Pacific Southwest. A change of 10 percent would be "significant," though the agency hasn't made a judgment on the move yet. It would rule on those findings when the state board presented them, though he said he didn't know when that will happen.
Lakin said the replacement site initially had made sense since it was located on the outskirts of town, similar to the previous measuring station. The elementary school positioning offers a good sense of Arvin's air, especially since it is placed near children, Paauwe added.
But the Arvin committee members say they aren't convinced. On a recent afternoon, they drove to the elementary school site, only to get lost amid the cherry and orange orchards.
"I've never been near this school and I've lived here 10 years," said resident Hugo Tamayo, who is part of the bucket brigade effort.
Collecting their own data
That brigade is in the process of applying for grants that would fund their grassroots effort. Their hope is to create several monitoring stations around town, including one in Di Giorgio County Park in the center of town, about five miles from the air board's station.
While the state couldn't officially use the brigade's data, the information could supplement its own collection, Paauwe said. Official collection stations meet stringent federal requirements, including provisions such as ensuring the monitor is off the ground and away from trees, she said.
"We think this effort is particularly interesting and good because it turns people into air quality advocates," Paauwe said. "They start to pay attention and look at the overall air quality in their areas."
Paying attention comes naturally for Arvin residents such as Tamayo, a construction worker. When Tamayo travels outside the Arvin area for work, he notices he can breathe easier.
"You can work a lot better and you're not always thinking about the air," he said.
Tamayo said he's joining the bucket brigade effort to enact greater change: "I want to make a trip to Washington, D.C., instead of Sacramento."
Before the residents can set up their own monitors, though, they'll need money to fund the effort. They're working with the Delano-based Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment to help secure funding. Grants would be used to buy the monitors, conduct lab analysis on the results and train locals to accurately gather readings.
Even if the state board doesn't agree with the residents' findings, the information might spur them to do more monitoring themselves, leading to broader policy change, said Caroline Farrell, CRPE's acting executive director. If the air is found to be especially bad near a school, for example, more trees could be planted and outside playtime minimized.
The EPA could use residents' collections to help determine if more official monitoring sites are necessary, Lakin said. When a region exceeds federal air standards, the state must create a plan to improve the findings, such as cutting truck emissions, he said.
Bucket brigades in other communities
Arvin residents aren't the only ones in Kern County taking air measurements into their own hands. In the Frazier Mountain communities, residents received $25,000 in funding for their own bucket brigade, thanks to the Kern County Air Quality Mitigation Fund.
While the mountain communities are located high above the valley's pollution, residents worry about diesel emissions and idling trucks on an Interstate 5 rest stop.
"If we can show a problem, we can get a faster solution and protect the community," said Linda MacKay, the president of the TriCounty Watchdogs, a local advocacy group.
When residents take air quality monitoring into their own hands, they typically work with organizations such as Global Community Monitor, a Bay Area group that trains and supports the bucket brigades. The brigade got its name from actual buckets that collect gases, but particle and ozone monitors are also used.
That group, which formed in response to concerns over a Northern California refinery's pollutants, offers training manuals and air sampling devices. The group is working with the Frazier Mountain Communities, and has extended its reach to places as far flung as India, South Africa and Thailand.
"We work with residents and take a critical eye to what flies under the radar," said executive director Denny Larson. "If you're excluding local knowledge, you're leaving out a lot of valuable information about what and where you should be monitoring."
If Arvin receives the funding, the organization will work with them to do a "toxic tour," an assessment of the areas where residents see or smell problems.
For Partida and his group, the first location is simple: Di Giorgio County Park, right in the middle of downtown Arvin, about a five-mile drive from the current state monitoring site.
"There's plenty of room," Partida said, gesturing to an open expanse just a few blocks from Bear Mountain Boulevard. "This is Arvin air."