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Autumn Parry / The Californian

Smog is seen during sunset at the foot of the Grapevine in this June 2013 photo.

The governing board of the valley air district voted unanimously Thursday to ask federal regulators to end a $29 million smog penalty charged annually to valley motorists.

The 12-0 vote at the Fresno offices of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District authorizes the eight-county district to formally ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare the valley "in attainment" of the one-hour ozone standard. The district will also formally request that the EPA lift the penalty.

Many valley residents were frustrated in 2010 when, under federal law, residents and businesses became subject to the penalty, especially because the district was already charting progress in attaining the one-hour standard. Most of the annual penalty is paid by motorists through a vehicle registration surcharge of about $12.

Ironically, more than 80 percent of the valley's smog-producing chemicals are generated by mobile sources -- cars, trucks, tractors, buses and off-roads vehicles -- over which the air district has no direct control.

District board member and Bakersfield City Councilman Harold Hanson said in a statement that achieving attainment "is especially gratifying because the air district did not often prescribe to the one-size-fits-all solutions (supported) by special-interest groups that were not in the best interests of the valley.

"We did our best to balance the valley's economic and environmental interests, and it worked," he said.

According to Seyed Sadredin, the air district's executive director, the valley is the first region in the nation to progress from an "extreme" nonattainment classification to attainment of the one-hour ozone standard.

This year, for the first time, there were zero exceedances of the one-hour standard. The two previous years also saw fewer exceedances in the valley, adding up to three of the cleanest consecutive years in the history of ozone monitoring in the valley.

While air officials are clearly elated, Sadredin said the district is not claiming victory over ozone -- a corrosive gas linked to heart and lung illness and even premature death -- which remains a serious problem in the valley. But regulators have seen historic improvements, despite the valley's bowl-like topography and stagnant summer weather patterns, which help trap ozone at ground level.

Despite the improvements, environmentalists and clean air advocates remain skeptical. They say the district's claim of attainment is questionable for at least two reasons.

First, the district has termed a 2012 ozone violation at an air monitor in Fresno an "exceptional event" due to a nearby fire. If the EPA disagrees, that alone could derail the district's attempts to document attainment. Second, critics of the air district argue that when an air monitor near Arvin was moved in 2010, it may have skewed results toward more favorable readings.

They also argue that the one-hour standard is being replaced by the eight-hour standard, which is much more difficult -- some say impossible -- to meet as long as people, businesses and industries are still burning fuel and generating emissions. Furthermore, any improvements in ozone, a hot weather phenomenon, do not affect the valley's wintertime scourge, particulate pollution generated from diesel exhaust, power plants, various industrial and farming processes, residential wood burning and natural causes.

It will likely be several months to a year before the EPA responds to the estimated 500-page report now being prepared by air district staff.

District leaders expressed hope that the EPA will examine the evidence in a timely manner and come to a quick decision in their favor. But, improved air or not, no one is holding their breath.