2009 April 30: CA Bakersfield: worst air pollution in the U.S.

The worst air in the US? It’s not in L.A.

Pollution levels and topography have helped make smog ‘a way of life’ in Bakersfield, Calif.

By Daniel B. Wood  |  Staff writer/ April 30, 2009 edition

Bakersfield, Calif.

At Uricchio’s Trattoria, a street café on 17th Street, the smell of sizzling garlic wafts into the air tinged lightly with the aroma of … exhaust. And despite the perfect blue sky, the view of the mountains surrounding this Central Valley city is obscured by a ruddy haze.

As Lois and Jill Moreland sip coffee and spear salad greens, they comment on the placement of a national story on smog in the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. “It only made the cover of the B-section,” says Lois.

Bakersfield has moved into first place as the city with the most fine particulate pollution, according to report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association, which annually ranks America’s cities with the unhealthiest air. Last year, the city was third behind Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

For the third year in a row, Bakersfield ranks as the nation’s second smoggiest city. It comes in just behind Los Angeles in the cities most polluted by ozone, the gas that forms a major component of smog.

Local TV has already broadcast the story and national reporters have shown up, but the Moreland sisters seem unfazed. “Smog is a way of life here,” says Jill.

It’s been more than a decade since the first reports about the growing pollution threatening America’s most diverse and productive farm counties here in the Central Valley. The reasons for the pollution are manifold, including dust from tractors and mist from fertilizers and pesticides that grow half the nation’s produce.

But the topography and meteorological conditions make matters worse – and make the problem hard to solve. The city is boxed in on three sides by mountains. Inversion layers – which act like a lid on the air, holding the pollution close to the ground – are present in both winter and summer, and there is little or no wind to take the pollution elsewhere.

Kern County, in which Bakersfield is situated, and also ranks as the worst county in average annual particulate pollution, has made some efforts to reduce the pollution.

According to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the county has reduced stationary sources of pollution by 80 percent since 1980, through measures including regulations on oil processing and, in 2003, restrictions on wood fires. Farming regulations that reduced both the number of harvesting machines and the number of trips through the field have also helped.

But officials now say they need state and federal help to control the heavy-duty trucks that pass through on Interstate 5 and Highway 99, and cut east to west hauling produce from farms to packaging facilities.

“Unfortunately, all these big trucks fall outside our regulatory authority,” says Seyed Sadredin, the district’s executive director and air pollution control officer.

So far, pollution controls have cost county businesses about $40 billion, he says. Two plans, one to reduce particulate matter by 2015 and another to reduce ozone by 2023, will cost another $20 billion.

“This is all very costly and in the current economic crisis is even more of a challenge,” says Mr. Sadredin.

The cost of noncompliance with pollution standards may be more, he says. Being out of compliance with federal Environment Protection Agency standards costs the county $2 billion in forfeited federal highway funding and puts a dent in its ability to attract more businesses.

Other intangible costs are just as important, notes Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the California chapter of American Lung Association (ALA), pointing to the poor lung capacities of the young people who grow up in such an environment. A University of California, Fullerton study estimated the economic cost of not meeting EPA air standards for the southern California region, which includes the Los Angeles area, at $6 billion per year in health-related costs and premature deaths.

“Sure it costs money to clean up the air, but we are already paying costs with the health of young people, increased medication, and shortened lives,” says Ms. Holmes-Gen. The ALA is working with local governments and promoting partnerships between the county, state, and federal authorities.

“The San Joaquin Air Pollution District has done much to lower the pollution in this area and should be applauded,” says Holmes-Gen. “But there is a lot more they can do. Their hands are not tied.”

This year, 12 more California counties received failing grades than did last year, reflecting in part the tighter national ozone standards adopted in 2008. The ALA’s State of the Air 2009 Report also found that 6 of 10 Americans live in areas where pollution levels endanger lives.

“Despite America’s growing ‘green’ movement,” the report says, “the air in many cities became dirtier since the last report.”

( More stories )


1. jake starling | 04.30.09

Nothing will change until the California Air Resources Board obtains legal jurisdiction over ALL of the vehicles on that state’s roads. Until that is done, California will continue to be mired in smog.

2. Suzette | 05.01.09

Monitor–Steve’s comment does not meet taste standards and should be removed.

It’s a funny thing, to bunch dust in with real pollutants, but there you go. The real problem in Bakersfield, which is indeed an unpleasant place, to my way of thinking, is that so much of what was farmland is now housing developments. I have no idea what draws people to live there–jobs? Cheap housing? Family obligations? But the fact is that we are losing our ability to feed ourselves due to our inability to say “no” to building permits. It’s the same way everywhere, the overbuilding, but is the most damaging when it impacts farmland. I wish the screaming greenies who protect teensy fishes and tiny, useless field mice to the detriment of mankind, would take some interest in protecting the world’s food-growing lands.

3. MontyK | 05.01.09

Having lived in eight different states in my lifetime, including Bakersfield, CA, let me say that the city is far from the worst place to live. It has it’s problems sure, and the weather can be extreme at times, but I’d take it over the snow states and big eastern cities any day of the week. Bakersfield is only about two hours driving time from anything worth doing in California. The city, thanks to its modern road system, is easy to get around in. The air quality is bad, but not the eye burning kind of smog experienced sometime in LA.

4. Rick | 05.01.09

I grew up in Bako and besides having great friends everything else sucks. The place is terrible for kids unless you want them to do drugs, get pregnant, go to jail or become young republicans. It is so gross outsides most days that it ruins the fun of being outside in the sun. So depressing with nothing fun to do and so much concrete, shopping centers, and churches. Seriously a ton of traffic with a grid work that cannot handle it so that really helps the smog situation. I once made a environmental signature person walk away from my house in Seattle very sad because she wanted to tell me about smog in Seattle and I told her about real smog. I would expect everyone will have to wear mask in that city soon just to survive and avoid the valley fever.

5. Ben | 05.01.09

Um, this is quite inaccurate if only because there are 24 cities listed as the top 10 worst cities…

6. bill | 05.01.09

monty – what eye burning smog in LA? I”ve been here 4 years now and that stuff simply doesn’t exist anymore. You’d honestly rather live in Bakersfield than say… Boston? that’s questionable.

suzette – well done to way oversimplify the problem. Bakersfield has far more serious problems than ‘overbuilding’ I’d start with the meth issue, just off the top of my head.

jake – CARB? really.. that’s your answer? just like a californian to suggest that some bureaucratic organization can a) control ‘every [thing]’, while 2) not even mentioning mass transit. you’re a joke, and if you think that Californians can continue to drive the number of miles they do, alone, and still see a major impact on the environmental byproducts of transit you’re horribly misinformed.

weak comments all around.

7. brian k | 05.01.09

for suzette: “It’s a funny thing, to bunch dust in with real pollutants, but there you go”

POLLUTE: (from the latin- lutum meaning mud.) 1. to render ceremonially or morally impure; to profane, desecrate, to sully, corrupt. 2. to make physically impure, foul or filthy;to dirty, stain, taint. befoul.
-courtesy of the oxford english dictionary.

this “dust” of course has no fertilizer or pesticides mixed in with it, and no one should be at all concerned with silicosis.

just as there are people who feel strongly about the role of “useless field mice” in a healthy ecosystem, there are also screaming greenies concerned with urban planning and issues of unchecked sprawl and the ongoing diminution of healthy, non monocrop agricultural lands.
remember that people who choose to fight for teensy fishes and useless, good for nothing, lazy creatures ultimately are fighting for a healthy environment that benefits us all. yes even humans, hard too believe, but there you go.
and if i am not mistaken i think our dear old friend the spotted owl might have halted one or two needless building permit applications in his day…

8. AirBreather | 05.01.09

Most dust is NOT lumped in with “the real pollutants” using the current testing methods for measuring particulate matter. The standards being violated in Bakersfield are related to PM2.5 (and possibly PM10), which is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 (or 10) microns in aerodynamic diameter. Most of this matter is produced from combustion and atmospheric reactions, not from mechanical means (dust blowing off of field, or quarrying activity) especially for PM2.5. This is stuff that is small enough to be inhaled deep enough into your lungs that you can’t exhale it.

9. Nicolle | 05.01.09

Thwo important points your article should note. First, pollution trapped inside the Central Valley of California is not solely generated by the people who live in those cities, farm production, and I-5/Hwy 99 transportation. In addition to those sources, pollution from both the SF Bay Area and the LA area is swept into the valley by natural weather patterns and trapped there by the inversion layer until a storm clears the area. This is a statewide problem, not only a problem for those cities. Second, Visalia, Porterville, and Bakersfield are located in Tulare County and Kern County–two of the poorest counties (based on per capita income) in the state. The cost of noncompliance and the cost of treating the health affects on the people of those communities hits especially hard.

10. Scott | 05.01.09

Attn censors: I find Susan’s mischaracterization and derogatory use of slurs in describing environmentalists to be offensive. If you are going to remove Steve’s post, please remove hers as well.

11. Toodie | 05.01.09

Suzette is right. Steve’s comments not only are inappropriate for the Monitor, but add to the pollution of commentary that stems from unhealthy thinking. Mocking tones of disrespect don’t further progressive solutions, any more than toxic emissions from cars and factories do.

12. Donovan Colbert | 05.01.09

Bakersfield is a miserable place, no doubt about it – but low income makes it more insufferable. As an LA bedroom community for the wealthy who make a living out of LA but live in the more affordable Bakersfield area, the trade-offs that so many point out as negatives are actually positives. Anyone who has ever spent any time in gridlock on the 5 in L.A. (or heck, the 5, 80, or 50 in Sacramento, or just about ANY highway in the Bay Area) can tell you that “Too many cars on an outdated transportation grid” in Bakersfield is a wildly optimistic assessment of Bakersfield’s size. Bakersfield Traffic is idyllic and mild compared to other major Californian metropolitan areas.

Bakersfield oddly prides itself on all of the negatives that it thinks it suffers more than any other Californian city. Get a Bakersfieldian talking about the size of BHS, the thickness of their fog, the unbearable heat of their summer, the influx of immigrants, the snobbish mall-rats, the trailer dwelling white trash, the gang-bangin’ ghetto gangstas, or whatever other thing, and it is by far the WORST in Bakersfield than in any other place in California, maybe the world. I’m not sure why Bakersfield has this weird competitive streak on misery, but it does. (And by the way, I’d much rather chill at Vic’s in Sacramento than Dewar’s in Bakersfield).

I’m now living in a place where winter temp with wind-chill can drop to -20. It is horrible, but at least I can put on more clothes. Californian 115 degree heat is unbearable. “At least it is a dry heat”. Yeah, so is an oven.

13. Nebraskan | 05.01.09

So, Bakersfield California grow’s half the nations produce eh?

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