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Other shoe in air quality battle

The other shoe is about to drop on San Joaquin Valley farmers in their ongoing battle with state and federal air quality regulators and state politicians who have put agriculture squarely in the crosshairs of blame for the valley’s dubious honor of being the worst air quality in the nation.

Farmers have argued in vain that it is a growing population and increasingly more cars and trucks that are contributing more to the valley’s air problems.

Nevertheless, at the height of the growing season this year is the deadline date for a whole array of onerous new air quality laws farmers must comply with.

However, farmers likely will slip that shoe back on and kick some of these regulations right back in the face of the regulators.

Roger Isom, vice president and director of technical services for California Cotton Growers, told the association’s annual meeting that producers are already working to reduce dust emissions, and they’ll use the new air quality laws to prove it.

Effective July 1, SJV farmers who farm more than 100 contiguous acres must implement five conservation management practices (CMP) for each crop they grow. These are for unpaved roads, unpaved equipment yards, land preparation and cultivation, harvest and other areas like wind blown dust and burning.

"Farmers do a lot of things already to reduce dust," Isom said. "Now they will get credit for them." Roundup Ready cotton qualifies for a conservation management practice because it reduces cultivation, said Isom. Most farmers oil or water roads and equipment yards. The law assumes they do not. Those also would also qualify as a CMP as will harvesting with a cotton picker larger than a two-row model.

Only solace

However, that may be the only solace from in the onerous new air quality regulations that will go into effect this summer for which farmers must file conservation management plan by Sept. 1.

The cotton growers association along with several other farm groups in the valley will be hosting workshops soon to aid producers in wading through what surely will be a myriad of forms to comply with the new laws.

Isom said candidly farmers have only themselves to blame for the new regulations because they did not put up enough political resistance when new laws were being drafted. Calls for letter writing campaigns protesting the proposed new laws resulted in little correspondence. Bus trips to Sacramento took only a handful of producers to the state Capitol in protest.

For those who want to challenge the laws now, Isom said it is too late. "That train has already left the station," he said. Now the challenge is to make sure federal and state regulators do not go beyond the intent of the laws.

They are bad enough as they are. For example, large SJV farming operation must now get the same type of air quality permits as refineries and large industrial plants. They must also upgrade engines to comply with the new rules that are triggered by the valley’s air pollution designation of "extreme," worse than Los Angeles. Isom said the agricultural organizations in the valley are attempting to get more state and federal funds to replace both stationary and portable pump engines.

New rule fees

Of course, there will be "fees" associated with many of these new regulations since the state had little money left in the budget.

The state air resources board is even proposing gasoline vapor recovery systems be installed on farm gasoline pumps. Isom believes the state’s data justifying such a move is wrong. Farmers hope Isom is right because it could cost up to $18,000 per tank to install the vapor recovery system like those used in urban gas stations.

Even when farmers prove that they are good stewards, like achieving a 20 percent reduction in Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) from pesticide applications five years ahead of schedule, they still cannot win support for their efforts. Not content with that, the state air resources agency now wants agriculture to reduce VOCs by another 30 percent within five years. Isom said cotton growers and others have forced regulators to back off that demand.

This cannot be done without reformulating pesticide compounds used in the San Joaquin Valley within five years as proposed by the state, "even if the companies wanted to spend the time and money doing it."

The regulations are only half the problem. Enforcement is the other. Isom said farmers have told him they are so angry at being singled out that they would refused to allow air district employees on their farms.

Isom said it will not be district employees "enforcing" these new laws. Recently the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District received a lot of publicity for hiring 18 "air police."

Isom said he supported the hiring because these people are needed to process permits. They are not air police, but permit processors.

Sierra Club

"These are not the people you need to worry about, it is groups like the Sierra Club you need to worry about," said Isom. Last year when the district banned grape stake burning, it was Sierra Club members who were riding around Madera and Fresno counties and calling the air pollution control district when they saw stakes in with piled grapevines ready to burn.

Under the federal clean air act, these groups can collect money for expenses in finding violators. Isom said EPA and others do not have the money to challenge these claims.

"They were even going into burned piles and collecting soil samples to see if grape stakes were burned and turned that information in to the air quality district," said Isom. "If I had a dairy, I would be looking out for these guys," said Isom.

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