State air regulators on Thursday, unanimously approved a plan to meet federal standards for particulate matter in the San Joaquin Valley's air that could double the number of no-burn days called.
Also notably, said San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Executive Director Seyed Sadredin, the rules require trucking fleets to install filters on their equipment and, by 2020, replace all vehicles constructed before 2010 in an effort to remove high-pollution diesel engines from the road.
The plan, drafted by the local air pollution district board last month, was unanimously approved at a meeting in Bakersfield by the California Air Resources Board and will be forwarded to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval.
The only opposition publicly expressed at the meeting came from environmental groups and area residents who argued the plan doesn't do -- or move quickly -- enough to protect valley residents from bad air.
What the state board took up was the valley air district's proposal to comply with the U.S. EPA's 24-hour PM 2.5 standard. The standard regulates the levels of tiny particles of dust, soot and other matter present in the air, sized 2.5 microns or smaller, over a 24-hour period.
The plan aims to meet the federal standard by 2019 using a number of regulations to control diesel engine exhaust, residential wood burning and commercial cooking emissions.
But the air district has tempered some of the regulations to help people and businesses clean the air in different ways. The increase in no-burn days, for instance, would not apply to people who have an EPA-certified wood burning stove in their homes.
The stoves, which the air district indicates are more energy efficient, also reduce the emissions drastically. The units can cost from around $500 to $2,000, according to an online survey of retailers.
Under the plan, Air Resources staff said, 90 percent of valley residents will live in communities that comply with the federal standard by 2017, but that Bakersfield -- where air pollution is the worst -- will take until 2019 to meet the standard.
Brent Newell, legal director for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said that the plan doesn't meet appropriate federal standards and falls short of the level of regulation needed.
"Make revisions to the plan directly or send it back to the air district," he said. "Given the health effects of PM 2.5, don't you think you should do it once and do it right?"
But Air Resources Board staff said the valley plan currently complies with EPA rules on the books. And board members said that although the plan could do more, it's the best that can be achieved now.
"We need to grab what we can grab," said board member Dr. Alexander Sherriffs, a family physician from Fowler. "We all want something as soon as possible. This is not the last, best plan."
Sadredin said the consequences would have been dire for the valley if the plan, which has already missed a Dec. 31 deadline for submittal to the EPA, was not approved quickly.
Non-compliance would trigger EPA sanctions across the air district.
Federal sanctions would double the amount of emissions new businesses would have to offset to locate in the San Joaquin Valley, effectively creating a de facto ban on new businesses, Sadredin said.
And if the district didn't approve a valid plan within six months, the valley could lose $2.5 billion in federal transportation money, some of which is needed to complete major projects being planned for and under construction in Bakersfield.
And ultimately, Sadredin said, the federal government could take control of regulations designed to improve valley air.
But speaker after speaker told the state air board that the valley district's plan was both too weak and would take too long to reach the federal goal.
They talked about riding in ambulances to hospitals with children who couldn't breathe and keeping their children inside to protect them from the air.
Many of the speakers, from up and down the valley, were affiliated with the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, a Fresno-based group of medical, public health and environmental organizations.
Fresno pastor Christopher Breedlove said the majority of his family suffers from asthma and the proposed rules don't go far enough to protect them.
"It needs to be stronger and it needs to happen on a faster time frame," he said, comparing the state of the San Joaquin Valley's air to a patient in critical care.
"If we're in critical care, then urgent measures need to occur quicker and faster," Breedlove said.
Maria Elena Garillo spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.
"I have a son. He has asthma," she said. "Please do something to clean up the air as soon as possible so my son can go out to play."
But Sadredin said that plan was studied carefully and is as strong as the district can practically make it.
"They were tough on us," he said of Air Resources Board staff. "They held our feet to the fire to make sure this was the strongest plan possible."