Community Columns

Valley residents think air is worse than it really is

According to the recent statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 64 percent of valley residents believe that air quality today is worse than it was 10 years ago.

The truth, however, is that we have made significant progress in reducing air pollution. Air quality is much better today, but due to the valley's pollution-retaining bowl shape and weather conditions, we still face enormous challenges.

In fact, extensive air monitoring and scientific data show that air quality today is better than it was 10, 15 or 25 years ago. Since 1980, air pollution from manufacturing, industrial and commercial businesses has been reduced by 80percent. Since 1980, total emissions -- even including cars and trucks -- have been reduced by approximately 60 percent, despite a tremendous growth in population. Exposure to high air pollution concentrations has been reduced significantly throughout the valley.

This poll, nonetheless, provides a valuable glimpse into valley residents' attitudes about environmental and air quality issues. For those of us charged with the responsibility to protect and promote public health, public opinions on a couple of questions raise interesting public policy issues. People's understanding of the current state of valley air quality and their views on the balance between economic and environmental concerns warrant further debate and can be a guide in formulating effective actions.

Does acknowledging past progress diminish or enhance our ability to compel members of the public to do their part to clean the air, and to pressure the state and federal governments to come through with their fair share of funding for the valley? This is a real question for those of us who advocate for clean air in the valley.

Honesty is always the best policy. Truthfully pointing to major progress in improving our air quality and acknowledging the sacrifices and investments made by valley businesses and residents is essential to build the trust and confidence necessary to ask for more. It will be difficult to ask businesses to spend more if we cannot point to the fact that the billions they have already spent resulted in real and significant improvements in air quality.

As for the balance between health and economy, 50 to 65percent of the poll respondents support tougher regulations on agriculture and industry, even if it increases business costs.

Valley businesses are already subject to some of the toughest air regulations in the nation, and the smog-causing emissions from these businesses have already been reduced by 80 percent. The regulations in the recent smog plan adopted by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District will have an additional compliance cost of $20 billion for businesses.

Knowing this, would valley residents support additional measures, such as banning business activities on high smog days, if that resulted in the loss of businesses and jobs or higher costs on goods and services? The answer may hinge on the level of personal sacrifice that we might be willing to make, and the economic and health cost of air pollution.

Effective solutions will require a complete understanding of the complex scientific, socioeconomic, and technological issues that affect our air. We need a robust and well-informed dialogue on these questions. There should be no debate, however, that there is still work to be done, and the valley should speak with one voice in demanding that the state and federal government do their fair share for the valley.

Sadredin is executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.