California’s $5 Billion Clean-Air Plan Lacking One Thing: Money

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By Emily C. Dooley

Cleaner burgers and electric ATVs are all part of California’s ambitious $5 billion plan to clean up the San Joaquin Valley’s notoriously polluted air. Now the problem is figuring out how to pay for it.

The state has identified only about $1.1 billion in funds for the initiatives, plus another $900 million in local, state, and federal programs.

State officials estimate a $149 million funding gap in 2019 and a $495 million funding gap annually for years 2020 to 2024 if funding remains unchanged.

“This is an ongoing problem,” California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols said of the plan, approved by state regulators Jan. 24.

California is thinking as big as electric buses and as small as your hamburger as it looks at all the possibilities to cut fine particle and nitrogen oxides pollution, which aggravate breathing conditions like asthma. Exposure to particulate matter is blamed for 1,200 premature deaths annually.

The plan includes replacing 33,000 trucks by 2024, getting restaurants to upgrade underfire charbroilers that spew emissions when grilling burgers, using electric all-terrain vehicles, reducing agricultural burning, and replacing wood-burners.

It represents a new level of cooperation between San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, agriculture, industry, and state officials, Nichols said. California estimates the Valley would meet federal air quality standards by 2024 under the plan.

Show Me the Money

Nayamin Martinez, director of Central California Environmental Justice Network, said she was concerned about the funding. People working in the farm fields need protection now.

“What is going to happen if the $5 billion cannot be found?” she said. “If you rely on money that is hypothetical, you are going to be in trouble without a Plan B.”

The office of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Assemblymember Phil Ting (D), who chairs the budget committee, said it was too soon to comment on the air board plan and funding the legislature could authorize.

The plan calls for $3.3 billion to replace 33,000 trucks, $1.4 billion to replace or refurbish 12,000 farm vehicles, and $170 million to reduce emissions from off-road vehicles.

Newsom’s proposed budget includes only $25 million to replace agriculture equipment, making it a challenge for farmers, California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Policy Advocate Noelle Cremers said.

“This will not be easy to achieve,” she said. “Replacing 12,000 tractors by 2024 will require yeoman’s work, but that does not mean we are not committed to that goal.”

Another $134 million in incentives are needed to get people to replace commercial underfired charbroilers, residential wood-burning fireplaces and heaters, and internal combustion engines that agricultural operations use.

“We have growers who are clamoring for these incentives,” Samir Sheikh, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said. “There’s a lot of interest in these programs.”

He predicted the valley will meet its goals even if the state can’t find all of the money for some of the incentive programs it envisions. As technology advances, more clean equipment is purchased and people participate, he thinks the reduction effects will be magnified.

“There are already pots of funding that have been helping and we’re going to have to keep growing those pots,” Sheikh said.

Too Many Inhalers

That California Air Resources Board is digging so deep to replace burger grills is a sign of how bad air quality is and the lengths to which the state will go to remove any pollution sources, said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

“I think that is a testament to the serious air problem San Joaquin Valley faces,” he said. “That’s reaching down to smaller sources.”

However, some environmental advocates would have liked the state to go even further

While the plan is a step forward, it could be more stringent in terms of reducing pollution, according to Rocky Rushing, a senior policy advocate with Coalition for Clean Air.

“There are too many children that rely on inhalers,” he said. “There are too many deaths that are occurring.”

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