Pollution Starts Right Here in the Valley

By Enrique Ramirez, South Kern Sol

As someone who grew up in Bakersfield, smog and air pollution was and still is a common topic of conversation between my parents and friends.

The general consensus has often been the pollution comes from Los Angeles. The factories and plants spew pollutants down into the valley where it is trapped inside the high mountains surrounding the valley.

The San Joaquin Valley has been listed as one of the worst places in the country for air pollution, with many of its residents suffering from asthma and chronic respiratory diseases. But the astronomical amount air pollutants aren’t naturally occurring. They’re being created and sustained by industries that conduct a cost benefit analysis with people’s lives. 

I grew up seeing my older brother suffer from chronic asthma. He loved to run, play basketball and swim, but he never went without his inhaler out of fear of having an asthma attack.

I remember my best friend frequently having to go inside to use his nebulizer, a device that delivers medicine directly into the lungs for relief. I remember listening to the loud machine while waiting for him to finish so we could get back to playing; however we would usually settle for video games instead until he could re-acclimate.

It wasn’t until I was driving down Highway 58 when I realized how bad the problem was. Because it had rained earlier, I could clearly see the beautiful mountains in the distance, and I realized that wasn’t a sight I usually see. It was a sight that is often blocked by the dense smog.

The World Health Organization says Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 is a major factor of pollution related respiratory illness and disease. The San Joaquin Valley has yet to meet federal standards regarding PM 2.5 set by the EPA in 1997.

Uncovering the main causes of the pollution is an interesting endeavor. Many sources list passenger vehicles as the major culprit for emissions. While there is passing mention of the agriculture industry as a contributing factor, resources primarily focus on how to avoid the effects of air pollution — an interesting notion to consider.

According the 2016 emissions report released by the California Air Resources Board, passenger vehicles only created .97 tons of PM 2.5 per day, while Farming Operations were the largest contributor with 13.45 tons per day.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution 2017-18 Report to the Community lists Farming Operations as the largest contributor (at 22 percent) for directly emitting PM 2.5, meaning the agriculture industry is responsible for a significant portion of the problem. And they are aware of it. However, many major players consider the economic impact of farming to be more important than the industry’s effect on health.

Farming and agriculture play a significant role not only in the San Joaquin Valley but also in the nation. The valley grows food that is shipped across the country, and their lobbying power within the state is uncanny.

The agriculture industry has the choice and resources to incorporate technologies that would reduce their emissions, such as switching to low-emission trucks and investing in different harvesting methods. However they often refuse and continue to cause health problems.

The farming industry is choosing to take part in the production of disastrous air qualities that affects thousands of residents and has yet to be held accountable. It’s important residents be made aware and government, schools and community organizations to acknowledge them as a cause of the problem.

The California Air Resources Board has approved a plan, drafted by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, to achieve the PM 2.5 standards, and it will be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The plan will rely on incentive-based control measures to reduce emissions and will require at least $5 billion of funding, in addition to the local funding already gathered.

The industry should not need billions of taxpayer dollars in incentives to stop its production of harmful air pollutants in the valley, and taxpayers should not be held responsible for the choices the industry continues to make.

Enrique Ramirez is an MPH candidate attending UC Berkeley. He is originally from Bakersfield, CA and received his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Cal Poly Pomona in 2013. He previously worked within the Kern County Department of Public Health, primarily in outreach and education regarding public health issues such as African American maternal health disparities and STI prevention.