A stretch of the Calif. State Route 99 corridor in the San Joaquin Valley is shown busy with traffic in Fresno, California in 2011. Gary Kazanjian/AP
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FRESNO, Calif. – The 250-mile-long San Joaquin Valley is an economic powerhouse, producing everything from crude oil to grapes, cotton to pistachios.

It’s also a pollution-trapping bowl, bounded on three sides by mountains and punished by meteorological conditions that cause dirty air to stagnate. All eight counties in the valley are in “extreme non-attainment” of the federal smog standard, which has led to penalties. Lung-searing ozone, the main component of smog, is cooked by triple-digit summer heat. Fine particles, tied to both heart and respiratory disease, fill the air on foggy winter days.

In theory, the Clean Air Act was built for places like this.

The 1970 law has succeeded by any number of measures. Its benefits — in the form of improved health and productivity, along with lower medical expenses — have far exceeded its economic costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By 2020, the EPA estimated in a peer-reviewed, congressionally mandated report, it will prevent more than 230,000 premature deaths annually from microscopic particles that can make their way deep into the lungs and bloodstream after being discharged by cars, trucks, industrial sites and agricultural operations.

Even here, the law has had demonstrable effects. In 2015, for example, the valley exceeded the federal ozone standard on 55 days, compared to 90 days in 2005 and 113 days in 1995, data from the California Air Resources Board show. In a place where agriculture and oil rule, however, the act has become a bone of contention, fueled by an anti-regulatory mood in Washington and a curious and controversial alliance of business interests and the local air-pollution control agency.

The head of that agency, Seyed Sadredin, is a favorite of lawmakers who want to soften the act. In his third appearance before Congress since October 2015, Sadredin complained at a House hearing this spring about the law’s “artificial and arbitrary” deadlines, which he said could lead to “devastating federal sanctions” in the valley for pollution beyond his regulatory reach.

“Some of the provisions of the Clean Air Act, although well-intentioned, are leading to unintended consequences,” Sadredin said.

The key elements of this esoteric drama are these: At the same time the valley is violating federal standards, its chief air-pollution cop is deflecting blame and aiding politicians in D.C. eager to pry open a venerable public-health statute.

“[Sadredin] is a state officer,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator in California until last year. “He swears an oath to uphold the Clean Air Act, and yet he is actively working to undermine this important environmental law.”

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Executive Director Seyed Sadredin at a March 2017 congressional hearing. Screenshot/House Environment Subcommittee

Looking for a scapegoat

The conflict in the valley has roots going back 70 years. In 1947, California Gov. Earl Warren signed into law the Air Pollution Control Act, authorizing each of the state’s 58 counties to create an air pollution control district. Los Angeles County, routinely enveloped in a brown cloud by that point, was the first to do so.

As the years passed, state lawmakers came to realize that, as one historical document put it, “air pollution does not respect political boundaries.” At their direction the California Air Resources Board divided the state into 15 air basins based on geological and meteorological characteristics. Starting with one in the Los Angeles basin in 1976, 35 regional air pollution control districts were created to address stationary sources of pollution – oil refineries, power plants, farms — as well as area sources — gas stations, dust from unpaved roads.

The districts prepare detailed plans stating how they intend to meet Clean Air Act standards. The plans are sent to the Air Resources Board, which regulates mobile pollution sources such as cars and trucks (more rigorously than the federal government. The Trump administration wants to change that). All of this is folded into a single document that goes to the EPA, which can accept or reject all or part of it. If the EPA thinks a state is malingering, it has the power to withhold federal highway funds or impose other sanctions – though it rarely does.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, composed of eight former county offices, was formed in 1991. The district, with a staff of 310 and an annual budget of nearly $200 million, faces a herculean task in a region of 4.2 million people. In Fresno, one in five children has asthma – among the highest rates in the country. Bakersfield — seat of Kern County, California’s oil-producing leviathan — ranked first in the nation for short-term particle pollution in the American Lung Association’s most recent “State of the Air” report. Valley-wide, 1,200 premature deaths each year are blamed on the bad air.

What to do about all of this has become the subject of endless debate and vitriol spewed by a disparate cast of characters and fueled by a changing political climate. In Washington, newly emboldened Republicans and at least one Democrat in Congress are seeking to stretch compliance deadlines under the Clean Air Act, calling them unreasonable and counterproductive.

Many regulators and public-health advocates in traditionally liberal California are watching with trepidation, but Sadredin, the air district’s executive director, is not one of them. Within weeks of Donald Trump’s election, Sadredin’s name was atop a “presidential transition white paper” calling for an end to “costly bureaucratic red tape” associated with the act.

In interviews with the Center for Public Integrity and KQED’s The California Report, Sadredin insisted he has no desire to see the law eviscerated and pointed to a district proposal sent to state legislators in February. The document said a redo of the Clean Air Act wouldn’t be necessary if Congress could find some other way to inoculate California’s hazy midsection from EPA sanctions for air pollution beyond local control — from heavy trucks that barrel down Interstate 5 and State Highway 99, for example.

“We’re not trying to get out of our responsibilities,” Sadredin said. “We just don’t want to be unfairly penalized.”

The proposal, however, leaves open the option of lobbying to weaken the federal law. Dr. Alexander Sherriffs, a physician in the town of Fowler who sits on the district’s 15-member governing board, cast one of two “no” votes against the plan. At his busy clinic, just south of Fresno, Sherriffs lamented the “terrible” rates of childhood asthma he sees. Even more alarming, he said, are heart attacks among adults that may be pollution-related but aren’t recorded as such on death certificates — “hundreds, if not a thousand, a year.”

Sherriffs acknowledged that anti-pollution measures can be costly. But so are disease and its byproducts: emergency-room visits, medication, lost school days. “We’re paying this hidden expense every day,” he said. The doctor said he’s unwilling to “get off a winning racehorse” and endorse changes to the Clean Air Act. He worries that Sadredin has joined “people with axes” in Washington who want to dismantle the law.

‘Unfair sanctions’

For the past five years, valley residents and business owners have paid a $12 vehicle-registration surcharge for violating the federal one-hour ozone standard. An agreement between the EPA and the air district has allowed the cumulative $168 million in penalties to be used for local projects such as replacement of diesel trucks, school buses and tractors, which contribute to both smog and particle pollution.

Sadredin says he fears the EPA could impose more draconian measures on a region of vast oil fields and farms interspersed with swaths of poverty. Among them: “no-drive” and “no-farming” days, and the withholding of billions of dollars in federal highway funds.

“A federal remedy to bar the imposition of these unfair sanctions is our top legislative priority,” Sadredin told the House Environment Subcommittee on March 22.

At the same hearing, Kurt Karperos, deputy executive officer at the state Air Resources Board, painted a less dire picture and urged lawmakers not to weaken the Clean Air Act. Driven by the law’s health-based deadlines, the state’s air quality has improved even as its economy – the world’s sixth-largest — has “continued to grow and prosper,” Karperos said.

Clean-air advocates — some of whom have clashed with Sadredin for years — say the district has dallied, especially on fine particles. The EPA defines these as being 2.5 micrometers — 1/30th the diameter of a human hair — or smaller.

“They are constantly looking to put the blame somewhere else, find a scapegoat,” said Dolores Weller, director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition in Fresno. “They’re supposed to be a public-health agency, but they pride themselves on the customer service they offer to [air-pollution] permit holders. That’s who they want to make happy. They could care less about people who have asthma.”

The coalition has compiled a list of steps it says the district could take to meet the EPA’s PM 2.5 standard, including a ban on the burning of agricultural waste and stricter controls on natural-gas flaring in oil-production areas.

Sadredin says the district has adopted more than 600 rules since 1992 and is pondering others. People’s exposure to high smog levels is down by 90 percent since the passage of the Clean Air Act 47 years ago, he says. “If we ever reach a day when we cannot find more things to do to reduce air pollution in the Valley, we’ll close shop and I will quit my job,” he wrote in an email to the Center for Public Integrity.

Sadredin says the federal law’s overlapping deadlines and ever-tightening requirements impede progress in places like the valley: Just as the district figures out how to meet one standard, another appears on the horizon. The Air Resources Board, however, characterizes this as a self-inflicted problem. The San Joaquin Valley air district “has chosen to develop separate plans for individual standards,” the board said in a written statement. In contrast, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, in the Los Angeles area, has found a way to “address all standards simultaneously.”

Sadredin speaks often about a family of chemicals called nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which contribute to the valley’s vexing fine-particle problem. Eighty-five percent of NOx emissions come from mobile sources “outside our regulatory authority” – mostly trucks and locomotives – he testified at the House hearing in March. But state officials say that up to half of the particle pollution in the valley comes from sources regulated by the district. In October, the Air Resources Board kicked back for revisions a district plan to address the problem. The plan is scheduled to come up for discussion by the board this week.

“Our job is to make sure [districts] are working in tandem and meet federal standards,” board member Dean Florez, a former Democratic state senator from Bakersfield, wrote in an email to the Center for Public Integrity. “If one district goes astray, that’s really concerning.”

Sadredin “does not represent California or other air districts in his messages in D.C.,” Florez wrote. “His constant refrain that they have left no stone unturned is disingenuous. He needs to take a proactive approach to meeting federal and state air quality requirements as opposed to dragging his feet and only complying minimally at the last minute.”

‘Pro-business’ regulator

Most members of the air district’s governing board have parochial interests: eight of the 15 are county supervisors, five sit on city councils. Ties to oil and agriculture — which together contribute some $40 billion to the Valley economy — are strong. The exceptions: two board members appointed by the governor to make sure the health of all valley residents is considered and science is respected as policy is made. Legislation was required to create those seats, which are occupied by Dr. Sherriffs and John Capitman, director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at California State University, Fresno.

Sadredin, 57, began working for the district in 1981 and became executive director in 2006. In a 2013 radio talk-show interview, he described himself as a “pro-business conservative” and blamed “extremist environmental groups” for the EPA sanctions that led to the $12-per-vehicle surcharge.

Sadredin wrote in an email that he is a “life-long Democrat” who twice voted for Barack Obama. While he reports to a “conservative, pro-Business board,” he wrote, the body “has promulgated clean air programs that serve as a model for the rest of the nation.”

In 2015, the district’s board adopted a Clean Air Act “modernization” proposal, which suggested, among other things, that “technological and economic feasibility” be contemplated along with the health benefits of pollution controls. When the proposal came up for a vote, Sherriffs and Capitman were the only dissenters. Capitman said the plan “picks up the worst ideas in the country on how to move away from the Clean Air Act. I’m extremely uncomfortable about it.”

The board’s chairman, Fresno City Councilman Oliver L. Baines III, said the initiative merely argued for “common-sense” updates to the law that would help protect low-income communities like his West Fresno district, home to one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the state.

“No person in my position who represents a disadvantaged community is going to jeopardize public health,” Baines said. But he said he’s puzzled by resistance to legislative remedies that would shield such places from crippling sanctions.