Clean air, or perhaps more precisely, environmental perfection is the killer of blue collar head-of-household jobs in the San Joaquin Valley.
The 118 men and women who are about to lose their paychecks at one of Lathrop’s most high profile and longest employers — the Pilkington flat glass manufacturing facility — are the latest victims.
Sixteen years ago it was 220 workers at Manteca’s Spreckels Sugar plant.
In both cases, each manufacturer had spent millions of dollars complying with new air quality regulations only to have even stricter and more expensive standards thrust upon them. This time around Pilkington was forced to assess its Lathrop operations in light of a sluggish economy and a mandated $100 million upgrade in air quality equipment.
Air pollution regulations per se are not the sole cause of manufacturing’s massive decline in California. There are state employment laws, the high cost of labor compared to other states, and taxes. But in many cases the nail in the coffin of good paying jobs are ever changing air quality rules that keep getting more and more expensive to implement.
There is a need to have clean air. But the issue is how clean.
Air quality has improved by state and federal standards by 55 percent by various measuring sticks in the San Joaquin Valley over the past 21 years despite the population nearly doubling.
The valley is now facing a federal mandate the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has stressed repeatedly can’t be met even if every piece of farm equipment, all vehicles and trucks, plus trains disappeared from the valley for good. Part of the problem is the dictate is based in data from the 1990s. The federal bureaucracy steadfastly refuses to update it or acknowledge progress.
Meanwhile more and more jobs are disappearing. Much has been made of the San Joaquin Valley particularly as you travel south being the nation’s new Appalachia. Helping contribute to poverty conditions are the federal government’s air quality policies that are chasing away good paying jobs.
Making it difficult for manufacturers to pencil out operations in California, and particularly the San Joaquin Valley, with ever changing and costlier air quality mandates may also be backfiring.
That’s because heavy manufacturing jobs are being transferred overseas. China, the poster nation for crappy air quality, is where many products that we use are outsourced to manufacturer. For the past few years air pollution monitoring stations along the California coast have detected an increasing amount of bad air that is making its way across the Pacific Ocean and contributing to air quality issues here.
That means there’s a possibility one day products that are produced extremely clean currently at Lathrop could be produced using significantly inferior air quality equipment elsewhere which in turn will worsen global air conditions and boomerang back here.
Creating more balance in the campaign for healthy air is near impossible. That’s because elected leaders at both the state and federal levels created agencies that are essentially autonomous from the policy process. It had to be done that way in order to get things started as politicians have a tendency not to vote for regulations and such that are unpopular. Given the track record of Congress and the California Legislature you certainly don’t want politicians micromanaging air quality regulations.
But air quality endeavors are starting to take on the feel of a runaway train.
That has created a situation where elected leaders at the state and federal levels simply throw up their hands and say they can’t do anything because they are regulations they have no control over.
We need to reassess where we are headed and bring some balance back into the equation. Junking regulations on a wholesale basis or even tinkering with all mandated goals is not the answer. A well thought out surgical approach to the most egregious air quality regulations is what is needed.
Lathrop Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal is on the right track by trying to work with elected state leaders to do something about air quality regulations killing jobs especially given how clean the Lathrop Pilkington plant has become over the years. His specific goal of saving 118 jobs at the glass plant is an extreme long shot in the same neighborhood of the Sacramento Kings winning the NBA championship this season.
What is more reasonable is putting in motion — and then staying on top of — an effort to tweak air quality laws at the state and federal levels to prevent the loss of more jobs in the future.
Still, a Hail Mary attempt to specifically save the 118 Pilkington jobs is still worth the effort.
Pristine air doesn’t do you much good if people can’t survive.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-249-3519.