CARB visits Lamont

Table discussions like this one were active in every corner of the David Head Community Center in Lamont on Tuesday night. This community meeting, and others like it, are organized by the California Air Resources Board with the aim of empowering residents of communities that experience disproportionate burdens from exposure to air pollutants.

Despite measurable improvements in air quality, some valley communities continue to experience disproportionate effects from exposure to air pollution.

The Kern County farming community of Lamont is believed to be one of those towns, and staffers from the California Air Resources Board came to Lamont Tuesday night to hear from residents about problems they've experienced and concerns they may have in their own neighborhoods.

"What kinds of sources in your community do you think we need to clean up?" Monique Davis, staff air pollution specialist with ARB asked the 30 or so attendees.

At the table dedicated to enforcement issues, the ARB table host got an earful.

"Ag waste burning," said Lamont resident Tim Prado.

"Chemicals. They use it year-round on potatoes. It has an awful smell," said Jose Mireles, who has lived in Lamont since 1970.

Roberto Gonzalez said he has a neighbor who has an industrial shop. "I smell everything," he said.

Gonzalez told air officials he's complained for years, but nothing ever changes. Once law enforcement came by, but still, nothing.

Others talked about diesel-burning big rigs parked on their streets, sometimes three- or four-deep, engines running for extended periods. The dual tires leave mud on the streets. The asphalt is degraded by the heavy traffic.

"Enforcement is severely lacking," said Alvaro Casanova, a policy expert with the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment. 

"What is the enforcement action?" he asked. "When does it occur? Are violators held responsible?"

It’s all part of AB 617, a bill passed in 2017 aimed at transforming California’s air quality programs to address air pollution disparities at the neighborhood level. Dubbed the Community Air Protection Program, it requires new, community-focused actions that go beyond existing state and regional programs to reduce exposure to air pollution in disproportionately burdened communities.

It's a loud and not always popular recognition that those living in Lamont face more air pollution challenges — and therefore more health challenges — than someone living in Seven Oaks, northwest Bakersfield, or for that matter, Santa Barbara.

The California Air Resources Board is in charge of implementing the law.

The process was created, said CARB spokesman Alberto Larios, "to empower communities to get involved in cleaning up the air. In essence, this is what the community meeting was about."

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has historically been looked to for monitoring particulate pollution and ozone levels in the valley. But there is no air district monitor in Lamont. Nearby Arvin, with a history of chronic air pollution, has only one monitor. And it only measures ozone, the precursor to summertime smog.

There is no government agency-sponsored monitor in Arvin for PM 2.5, those dangerous microscopic particles that can get trapped in human lungs and may even migrate into the bloodstream. In fact, the closest PM-2.5 monitor is in southwest Bakersfield, 20 miles away.

But community monitoring of pollutants is becoming more common, and the Community Air Protection Program is exploring ways to increase monitoring at the neighborhood level.

"We're excited about this program," said Jaime Holt, the air district's chief communications officer who attended Tuesday night's meeting in Lamont.

"Not to say that it's without growing pains," Holt said.

Under AB 617, 10 focus communities will be selected across the state. Lamont could become one of them.

Local steering committees will be formed. Selected communities will have access to dollars for local grants to install air monitors and focus on air pollution issues that are hyper-local.

Meanwhile, air regulators may have to rethink the way regulation has always been done. Putting more power in the hands of those actually breathing contaminated air could be revolutionary. Or not.

There's still a long way to go before Lamont's Prado says he will believe real change is coming.

"But in the long run," he said, "I think this is a benefit to the community of Lamont."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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