By Brian Melley
The Associated Press
ALTAMONT PASS – The seemingly benevolent breezes that power giant windmills on these hills also carry pollution inland to one of America’s smoggiest regions, fueling a battle between rich and poor.
At the center of the dispute is something central to California: the automobile.
Lawsuits and legislation are pending that would require San Francisco area cars to undergo the same stiffer auto emissions tests required in every other urban area of California.
“You have the greenest, wealthiest area dumping pollution into one of the poorest areas,” said Bruce Nilles, a former Earthjustice lawyer who has worked toward improving air quality in the valley.
The Bay Area, which sends significant pollution as far as the Sierra Nevada foothills, has escaped the requirement because of an exemption written into state law by a former lawmaker from the coastal region.
It doesn’t take sophisticated air monitoring equipment to witness the pollution.
Nate Moehlman, an engineer and private pilot from Fresno, said that when he flies over the valley, he can follow a path of “gunk” all the way from the Bay Area to Bakersfield.
Ocean breezes blow east, through the Carquinez Straits to Sacramento and points north, and through the Altamont Pass south to the mountains that rim the valley’s southern border. Currents swirl in an eddy of concentrated pollution east and south of Fresno, which has some the highest smog levels in the nation.
The debate has illuminated the distrust and even contempt that has existed for decades between the industrial farm region and the city by the bay.
Valley folk have sensed a holier-than-thou attitude among Bay Area lawmakers and environmentalists they believe are forcing a liberal agenda on hard-working families who farm the nation’s most productive land.
To Bay Area denizens, the Central Valley is the hot, dusty, backward plain that must be endured on the drive to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite National Park.
When Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, filed a bill this year require Bay Area residents to pass the stiffer emissions test, Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, blamed part of the problem on tire fires and junk heaps in the valley.
The Fresno Bee responded with an editorial headlined “Bay Area airhead.”
Migden said the legislation is punitive, not supported by science and is motivated by “an irresistible impulse to pick on the Bay Area.”
Still, the state Air Resources Board has found that the Bay Area has had an “overwhelming” impact on inland pollution — 27 percent of the smog in Stockton came from the Bay Area. In the southern end of the valley, where air pollution is worse, the figure drops to slightly less than 10 percent.
Air pollution control districts in the Central Valley haven’t challenged a state exemption for agriculture that has allowed farms to remain largely unregulated for years. But they have sued the state board to reverse the Bay Area’s smog exemption, which was written during a brief period when the Bay Area met federal Clean Air Act standards for smog.
The enhanced Smog Check II checks required for every other metropolitan area in California cost most motorists about $10, but much more for repairs if the cars fail to meet the standard.
Ending the exemption would eliminate an estimated 27 tons of pollutants which contribute to smog downwind, said Ellen Garvey, air pollution control officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
“It doesn’t do anything to help us but it does help them,” Garvey said. “I think we ultimately want to do the right thing for clean air and we want to do the right thing for our neighbors.”
A study should be complete by the end of the month on how much of those smog-forming emissions are contributing to inland pollution.
Garvey said her agency is trying to determine what is cost effective. The enhanced smog check would cost about $5,500 to remove each ton of pollution-forming gases. The same goal could be achieved for $900 a ton if diesel-burning boats on the bay were equipped with cleaner burning engines.
The legislation passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly, 57-4, in May. It stands a good chance of passage in the upper house. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, said he might make some changes to the legislation but he will not block it.
“It’s an issue of fundamental equity,” said Mike Lynch, chief of staff for Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres, who fought for years to bring the Bay Area into compliance. “They think they’re special and they think everyone should give them a break because they’re special. Unfortunately, the break comes at the expense of our health and our jobs.”
Even if the legislation is passed, it is only expected to make a small dent — less than 10 percent — in the valley’s pollution problems. The San Joaquin Valley has failed for years to meet federal standards and needs to remove about 300 tons of pollution, a third of its daily total.