This opinion piece was written for Earthjustice and is reprinted here with permission.
Once upon a time, a valley known for being so fertile that it could grow much of America's produce came to be known for something else entirely: air pollution. The people of California's San Joaquin Valley needed help because the polluted air was making them sick with asthma -- at rates three times higher than the entire nation. Thousands were dying each year because of the smog, particulate matter, lead, arsenic and toxic gases in the air.
Because the people also needed energy to power their daily lives, Congress decreed that when new power plants were built, they had to be as clean as possible. New laws, implemented and enforced by the EPA, made it illegal for these new power sources to create more air pollution that would harm the Valley's residents. The people of the land rejoiced because they thought their air would be cleaner while getting the power they needed to farm the land, manufacture goods and create a healthy economy.
But the story was too good to be true.
When it came time to build the new Avenal power plant, the EPA changed its mind and allowed the gas-powered facility to use outdated and less protective pollution controls. The people of the rural communities of Avenal and Kettleman City, already burdened by high levels of diesel traffic fumes, toxic pesticide spraying and their proximity to the largest toxic waste dump in the state, objected... but to no avail. The EPA stubbornly decided not to require the new power plant to demonstrate that it will not cause unsafe levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide pollution or that it has installed the best available controls for greenhouse gases.
The people became distrustful of the agency whose mission was “to protect human health and the environment.”
Though recent chapters of this story cause concern, the end isn't yet written. A happy ending could happen, and here's what it would look like: the residents of the land contact their local, state and federal politicians along with EPA to tell them that the people of the valley, of California and of our country deserve better.
Clean air advocates and Earthjustice will continue their work to ensure that the law is enforced so we can all live happily ever after or at a minimum improve the air quality in that region.