Visible air pollution is a common sight in the southern San Joaquin Valley, especially from the vantage point of the Grapevine, as shown in this file photo.

Even in a state with some of the worst air quality in the United States, Kern stands above the rest.

The county landed in the top three by three different measures of poor air quality, topping the short-term particle pollution list, coming in second in year-round particle pollution after Fresno County and placing third in ozone concentration, after Los Angeles and Fresno counties.

The findings, released April 24 by the American Lung Association, overwhelmingly pointed to California as having the worst air in the country.

Seven of the worst 10 counties for ozone were in the Golden State and six of the worst 10 as measured by year-round particle pollution were in California. Four of the 10 worst by short-term particle pollution were in California.

Despite Kern's dismal standing, due in large part to the Central Valley's topography and other factors beyond local control, substantial progress has been made, said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Last year was the valley's cleanest year on record in terms of ozone pollution, she said, adding the region has seen an 80 percent overall reduction in air pollution during the last 20 years.

She pointed to the district's strategic outreach to businesses in the valley and incentives that help them pay for new, less-polluting equipment. More than $40 billion has been spent on these measures during the last 20 years, she said.

Even so, Shafter almond grower and clean-air advocate Tom Frantz said plenty more work remains to be done.

He suggested the district's financial incentives have mostly run their course and the next step should be more punitive, forcing pollution-causing companies to make changes they continue to resist.

"If farmers are still using old and dirty tractors, it’s time for them to be required to put a new one into use,” he said.

He acknowledged there have been successes such as a reduction in open-air burning. But he said more farmers should be using electric water pumps that run on solar power instead of systems fueled by natural gas or diesel.

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John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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