Jeff Jardine

Air alert didn’t blame almond dust, and here’s why

Cars emerge from the wall of dust thrown up last week by machines picking up almonds along Highway 108/120 east of Oakdale.
Cars emerge from the wall of dust thrown up last week by machines picking up almonds along Highway 108/120 east of Oakdale.

Heading off to work early one morning this week, I pulled up to Highway 108/120stopped and looked left for oncoming traffic.

A massive cloud of dust shrouded the roadway to the east. Cars and trucks heading west appeared first as tiny dots of light, becoming forms as they emerged from the thick haze. Eastbound vehicles disappeared into it like ghosts going through a wall. Almond sweepers moved through the orchard across the highway.

Yes, it is late summer and the almond harvest is well underway. Dust accompanies agriculture, and this is an agricultural area. It is more prevalent during droughts like the one we’re experiencing now. Salida’s Flory Industries is among the companies that design and manufacture harvesting equipment geared to reducing the dust or to retrofit older equipment for the same reason. Mostly, they can reduce it or try to redirect it, but not eliminate it. There is going to be dust, Flory engineer Mike Flora said. The sheer volume of new orchards planted over the past decade outpaces the number of dust-reducing machines currently in use.

When I arrived at work Wednesday, some folks had either emailed or left voice mails to voice their displeasure with dust.

“This area has one of the highest cases of valley fever, which, if I’m not mistaken, is airborne and comes from the ground,” one reader wrote. “It is so thick that the sky is brown and even caution placards are placed on roads, warning drivers that the dust is so thick you may be in an accident if you don’t drive through with caution. Is there a different standard as to what is considered a pollutant and what isn’t?”

There is, and some dust-choked Valley residents probably won’t like the answer.

Thursday, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued an air alert pleading with people to reduce emissions by driving less. It suggested carpooling and eating at work rather than driving to restaurants. It suggested avoiding drive-thrus, where your car will idle and spew exhaust. The agency cited smoke from the Rough fire in Tulare and Fresno counties. It didn’t include the Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras counties. Officials issued the release before that fire blew up into a 50,000-acre conflagration (nearly 65,000 acres as of Saturday afternoon)that forced evacuations of several foothills communities. By Friday, though, its smoke began to affect the air quality down here. Combine temperatures well above 100 degrees, the inversion layer forcing the bad air down to the Valley floor and the fine particulate matter from the smoke from both fires, and it created very unhealthy air.

What the agency didn’t blame was the almond dust. So, having an inquiring mind and all, I contacted air board officials to ask: Why not?

“The impacts of the fire ... the ozone numbers are going up,” said John Cadrett, compliance manager for the air board. “The dust from the almond harvest – the particulate numbers – are not going up significantly.”

The fine particulates from the fire, along with the engine exhaust that affects the ozone, merited the alert, he said. While the almond dust isn’t helping, it represents only a small part of the particulate problems, he said. And until this past week or so, the Valley had enjoyed its best summer air quality in years, Cadrett said.

The air board’s Anthony Presto said that right-to-farm laws limit what the air board can control, but that it works with the Almond Board, farmers and the equipment manufacturers to reduce the dust.

“When it comes to the almond harvesting, it’s not a situation we’re able to regulate,” he said. “The dry conditions from the drought certainly compound things.”

As for adverse health effects of the almond harvest dust, the numbers for Valley fever are on par with last year, according to Dr. John Walker, Stanislaus County’s chief health official. There were 33 reported cases as of Sept. 11,2014. There were 33 reported cases as of the same date this year. And the majority of those cases came from the west side – not from the eastern side of the county where most of the newer almond orchards are situated. In fact, he said, most of the cases reported in Valley counties are along the West Side, with more cases reported annually the farther south you go.

So, it would seem, the dust on the East Side is a more of a messy annoyance and inconvenience than a raging health hazard. Anyone who lives in the rural areas, and particularly near an orchard, either expects to endure the dust every year or should, just as those who live near dairies should expect to endure odors. And growers could point out that heavy almond dust happens mostly during the harvest or when they’re ripping land to plant new orchards. The dairy air is year-round, at the whim of the wind as to which direction it heads.

There are exceptions. Tens of thousands of acres once used for dryland cattle grazing in the eastern part of the county are now almond orchards. Likewise, fields in the Valley where row crops were grown or dairy cattle grazed have also been planted with trees. Folks who have lived out that way certainly have the right to complain. But as the air board’s Cadrett said, most of the almond dust is in rural, sparsely populated areas. Ag areas.

Stanislaus County is an ag area. Dust is part of the landscape.