By Vicky Boyd

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District recently approved a long-term plan that relies heavily on incentives to bring the region into compliance with federal air quality standards for super fine particulates.

About three years in the work, the plan expands existing efforts, such as the FARMER (Funding Agricultural Replacement Measures for Emission Reductions) program, while tying into a handful of new ones that help underwrite conversion to cleaner technologies. The latest incentives include cost-share for purchase of low-dust harvesters and whole orchard recycling.

The plan also targets residential wood burning and commercial charbroilers in hot spots where the bulk of the exceedances occurs – Kern, Fresno and Madera counties. Much like the old saying, "One bad apple can spoil the whole bag," one exceedance can blemish the entire region’s air quality performance.

Although the proposal drew praise from several groups, ranging from agriculture to health advocates, many questioned its steep price tag of $5 billion over five years. It also hinges on farmers upgrading 12,000 Tier 0-2 tractors to cleaner Tier 3-4 machines.

"I want to make sure everybody is clear how difficult it’s going to be to obtain the incentive funds," said Noelle Cremers, California Farm Bureau director of Natural Resources and Commodities. "Ultimately, it’s the Legislature who’s in charge of allocating those funds. We have two years of funds for the FARMER program, but we’ve no commitment it’s going to continue. Without the incentives, it’s going to be really difficult to achieve the reductions in the plan."

The California Air Resources Board now has to approve the plan, which it expects to take up at its January meeting. Once the state finalizes it, the plan will move to the Environmental Protection Agency for review, which could take up to 18 months.

Under the gun
The Valley Air District has been under the gun for the past three years to develop a plan that would bring the region back into PM 2.5 compliance while outlining steps it would take to meet future standards.

In 2015, the EPA rejected the California Air Resources Board’s request for an extension for the San Joaquin Valley to meet the 1997 National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM 2.5.

Although the valley has been able to reduce emissions of a handful of pollutants, it still violates the Clean Air Act by exceeding federal goals for PM 2.5 – particles created by burning or combustion about 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. These ultra-fine particulates can move deep into the respiratory tract and have been linked to reduced lung function and increased rates of chronic bronchitis, asthma and heart disease.

As part of the Clean Air Act, the EPA requires regions to meet a set of PM 2.5 standards. One looks at the amount of PM 2.5s generated over a 24-hour period; the other looks at annual production.

In addition, the EPA requires regions to ratchet down PM 2.5 production by meeting a series of deadlines with ever-tightening goals. The San Joaquin Valley already has met the 24-hour PM 2.5 goal of 65 micrograms per meter cubed outlined by the 1997 standard. With an annual value of 16 micrograms per meter cubed, the valley is close to meeting the 15 microgram goal in the 1997 standard by the Dec. 31, 2020, deadline.

But meeting the 2006 standard of 35 micrograms during a 24-hour period and the 2012 standard of 12 micrograms annually will likely be a challenge by the Dec. 31, 2024, and Dec. 31, 2025, deadlines respectively, said valley air board representatives.

The plan leans heavily on programs that provide financial incentives to replace older equipment and machinery with newer, lower-emissions models.

The FARMER program, for example, targets what CARB calls "off-road diesel-fueled mobile agricultural equipment." The state will underwrite up to 80 percent of the cost of new farm equipment powered by cleaner-burning diesel engines. 

New to the program are incentives that cover up to 75 percent of the cost of zero-emission utility terrain vehicles.

At the November Valley Air District meeting, governing board members approved $1 million to fund a pilot program to encourage growers and custom harvesters to purchase low-dust nut harvesters that achieve at least a 40-percent reduction in dust. Funds will be dispersed on a first-come, first-served basis. The program would provide 50 percent cost-share and be limited to one piece of equipment per applicant.

Board members also approved a $1 million pilot program to support alternatives to open-field burning of materials generated when orchards or vineyards are removed. In the past, much of this material went to co-generation plants, where it was burned to produce power.

The 20 biomass plants that accepted ag waste in the 1980s have declined to the current five. Under Senate Bill 705, passed in 2003, the current burning prohibition would have to be suspended if no economically feasible alternatives are available to manage the ag waste.

This pilot program would focus on whole orchard recycling, which involves tree removal, chipping and on-farm reuse of the material.

The money would be allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis and pay $300 to $600 per acre, depending on the practice, and up to $60,000 per applicant per year.

A carrot rather than a stick
Bob Elliott, chairman of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and a Valley Air District board member, said he favors the incentive-based approach to reaching the PM 2.5 goals.

"In everything we’ve done, I’m happy to see the emphasis placed on incentive programs," he said. "We get buy-in from the people to participate. We make it easier for them to participate by reducing the burden placed on them."

But he acknowledged funding the entire program will be a challenge.

"They’ve identified $1 billion of that, but it’s always an uncertain budget process," he said. "It depends on how the allocation method and budget bills are done at both the state level and the federal level. But at least we’re at the point the method has been identified and supported at the CARB level and apparently at the EPA level as well."

Elliott was referring to comments made earlier in the meeting by Meredith Kurpius, air quality analysis chief for EPA Region 9.

Calling the plan a "landmark accomplishment," she praised the multiple standards that were included and said the agency was "generally supportive of the strategies." But she stopped short of saying the EPA would approve it

Once CARB forwards the document to the EPA, the agency has six months to determine whether the plan is complete and another 12 months to complete its review.