Tom Schmidt of Merced was sad he couldn't view the mountains from an overpass this week -- and he blamed the valley's pollution.
"I can see the air is filthy," he told about 70 other Merced County residents and representatives from the California Air Resources Board and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. They were part of a community meeting Wednesday at Tenaya Middle School in Merced.
Paramedic Frank Kelly, also of Merced, announced that he was sick of treating so many people for severe asthma symptoms. Others expressed concerns about truck emissions, land use and the politics and expenses of reaching clean-air goals.
"How many people here think air quality in the San Joaquin Valley is a problem?" Melissa Kelly-Ortega of the Merced/Mariposa County Asthma Coalition asked the crowd.
Not surprisingly, everyone raised their hands.
This meeting was one of three led by a California Air Resources Board task force to gather the public's thoughts and concerns about air quality.
The task force was formed after a June air board meeting in which it became clear that the goal of cleaning up the valley's air by 2024 wasn't well-received by the public. "We are offended being told that we can't get clean air until 2024," Kelly- Ortega said.
Meeting called a success
State air board member Dorene D'Adamo led the task force to study further options. Meetings in Parlier, Arvin and Merced to collect the public's suggestions were an important part of this process, she said.
The task force publicly proclaimed the Merced meeting a success. There was a solid turnout of residents, businesses and agricultural interests. People introduced a range of concerns and appeared genuinely interested in being part of the process to speed up the cleanup of valley air.
Saundra West of Oakdale cited financial issues that businesses face in meeting air qual- ity regulations when she discussed her trucking business. She recently found out it would cost about $73,000 to retrofit her trucks.
"The truck value is $15,000, so you put us at a disadvantage," she said. "I ask you to help us, get us money to upgrade our fleet. ... We are held to high standards, but we can't operate, losing money."
Meeting members appeared sympathetic to West's situation.
Task force has report for board
How seriously these comments will be taken by the air board remains to be seen, task force member Kelly-Ortega and various community members said that evening.
A couple of hours before that meeting, the task force met at the county administration building to review its findings. It also released a report that it will present to the governing members of the state air board in Sacramento next week.
More pollution reductions are possible, and the San Joaquin Valley's ozone cleanup won't be as hard as previously thought. One finding was that rules on state-regulated diesel engines can reduce tons of air pollution.
This and other discoveries led the task force to announce that 90 percent of clean-air goals can be met by 2017. But the remaining 10 percent won't be met until the original completion target of 2024.
The task force conveyed these findings later to the commun-ity meeting.
"The message is, 'Yes, we've had improvements, but we aren't where we want to be,' " said task force member Judy Case, a Fresno County supervisor. "More work needs to be done."
UC Merced professor Henry Forman said the air board should do more to support the university's research.
D'Adamo agreed and encouraged Forman to apply for its research program. "We are just thrilled the campus is here," she said. "We are looking forward to more collaboration."