Visalia ranked second worst air quality in state

The American Lung Association ranks Visalia as #2 in the worst Year-Round Particle Pollution category for the state of California, barely trailing behind Bakersfield who sits at #1

VISALIA – Soot pollution loomed over the heads of Tulare County residents this year, earning the city the title as second most polluted city out of 202 metropolitan areas in the state.

Visalia has been ranked as the second most polluted city in the entire state for year-round particle pollution, also known as soot, according to the American Lung Association’s (ALA) 2022 State of the Air report. Soot comes from wildfires, wood-burning stoves, coal-fired power plants, diesel engines and burn-days for farmers, according to ALA reports. Visalia residents are not alone, as the Central Valley as a whole has the worst soot pollution levels in the entire nation, according to David Clegern from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). 

“Visalia has some of the highest [particle pollution] and ozone levels in the state and nationally,” Clegern said. “The Valley overall has the highest [particle pollution] levels in the nation and is one of the few extreme U.S. EPA nonattainment areas for ozone.”

The reason the central valley is plagued with pollution has a lot to do with its mountain ranges. The Valley is similarly shaped to a bowl, allowing the surrounding mountains to trap air pollution. Clegern said heavy-duty truck emissions play a large role in the pollution, as well as smoke from fires. Ozone levels, which is smog pollution, is also extremely high, but soot takes the cake when it comes to the Valley’s unclean air, according to ALA.

“[The] report finds that despite decades of progress on cleaning up sources of air pollution, more than 40% of Americans—over 137 million people—are living in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone,” the ALA report stated. “This is 2.1 million more people breathing unhealthy air compared to last year’s report.”

In addition to ranking the most polluted metro areas in the state, the ALA also grades cities based on a report-card system, with grades being A, B,C, D and F. This year, Visalia received an “F” grade, and failed in both smog and soot pollution. Soot pollution is deadly, and can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer, according to ALA. In Tulare County, there are 40,362 cases of adult and pediatric asthma combined, according to ALA data. 

Not only that, but the ALA report shows that pollution also disproportionately affects areas that are poverty-stricken or have a large population of people of color. In the report, people of color were 61% more likely to experience poor air quality than their white counterparts. In Tulare County, there are roughly 468,680 people, and 341,854 of them are people of color, according to ALA data. The disparities in air quality is partly due to living in areas where agriculture and trucking businesses are plentiful, but is a very complex issue that has many causes, according to a study from the ALA. Black communities are more likely to be affected by poor air quality, with Hispanic and Asian communities trailing closely behind. Though poor air quality is commonly associated with low-income areas, the ALA found that even among upper class minority communities there was still poor air quality in comparison to white communities. 

According to the ALA, scientists can really only speculate why disparities occur and associate racism, class bias, housing market dynamics and land costs with the uptick in poor air quality for minority communities. Also, lack of access to health care, jobs, dirtier workplaces and higher traffic exposure are all associated with both poor air quality and minority filled counties. 

CARB has been working on lowering pollution in the state, and continues to roll out new plans that would help California breathe clean air, working in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to reach 100% zero greenhouse gas emitting vehicles in just over a decade. Clergen said that CARB and the Valley Air District are working towards getting the Valley to meet the ozone standards by 2037. Some newer plans that are in the works are the 2022 Draft Scoping Plan and the Advanced Clean Fleet Act.

The Draft Scoping Plan was released by CARB on May 10, 2022, and includes the phasing out of all gas stoves and furnaces inside homes and buildings, which would potentially force over 95,000 homes in Tulare County to find different sources of fuel.

Likewise, CARB is now developing the Advanced Clean Fleets act, which will phase out all medium to heavy duty vehicles including the largest big rigs on the road, and replace them with zero emission trucks. Of the 1.8 million medium to heavy-duty vehicles in California that operate daily, 532,000 will have to be phased out due to ACF fleet requirements, according to the CARB ACF factsheet.

“As specified in the American Lung report, progress has been made. However, CARB recognizes that more work needs to be done and we are working hard to transition the mobile fleet to zero emissions,” Clegern said. “This transition will provide healthier air for Valley residents. We are working closely with the [San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District] to provide cleaner air for Valley residents as quickly as possible.”

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