The other day someone was ranting — it definitely wasn’t a discussion — about how the state’s mandates for air quality and what we should not landfill were useless and created expenses for no reason at all.
While I could spend a week debating the pitfalls of overregulation and unrealistic goals when it comes to the environment, I will be the first to defend much of what the State of California has done when it comes to air quality, water quality, and how we manage solid waste.
I’ve lived in the Central Valley all of my life — the first 34 years in the Lower Sacramento Valley and the last 26 in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
And I can tell you most of the broad changes to date have been good.
Thirty-five years ago you could drive through Bakersfield on what had been a clear and crisp November day in Sacramento and be in a borderline smog alert where you couldn’t see the sharp and abrupt rise in the foothills marking the entrance to the Kern River Canyon just 15 miles away.
Today smog that looks like fog is a rarity. Many pollutants have been slashed in half. This was accomplished even though the population of the entire San Joaquin Valley has roughly increased by 40 percent and is closing in on 4.3 million.
This did not happen by chance. It took — here’s that despised word — “regulations” to make it happen.
The first photo I shot for the weekly News Messenger as a 15-year-old correspondent was of a wheel barrow and other equipment mired in a huge pond of sludge at Lincoln’s municipal sewer treatment plant that had a cease and desist order slapped on it by the state.
There was a time less than 30 years ago when everyone in the valley seemed to have burn barrels fashioned from empty oil drums. They had two or three 35-gallon cans filled with garbage were hauled off each week to be buried. Nothing was recycled. Now plastic, glass, cans, paper, cardboard, used oil, grass clippings — you name it — are recycled.
People didn’t get together one day and all volunteer to recycle. It took regulations implemented through education and ultimately enforced by penalties to make it happen.
Has it been costly? Perhaps in the short run. But it is a lot less expensive than cleaning up contaminated ground water, pumping more oil to make all of our plastic, using 100 percent virgin wood for paper products, and paying to have our garbage shipped halfway across Nevada and landfilled.
Yes, there are examples of overkill. One is the federal insistence that the San Joaquin Valley get back to 1990 levels with some particulates that combustion engines produce even through air quality experts locally and even in Washington, D.C., concede is impossible to attain even if you idled every car, truck, farm tractor, and train.
There is a reasonable middle ground. Environmental perfection isn’t that middle ground whether it is dealing with fish versus people (which includes farming given most people I know can’t live without food) or methane gas from cows versus cleaner air.
In some instances we are approaching the point of diminishing returns because we are incessant on some goals while ignoring low hanging fruit that could make our lives and the environment healthier and cost all of us less money.
Southern California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District a number of years back identified two stroke engines as the No. 2 source of certain air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin.
One would think phasing out or outlawing two-stroke engines for everything from chain saws to leaf blowers for urban residential uses would have happened long ago as there are alternatives employing electricity or powered by battery packs.
Then there are garbage disposals. They are used to grind up everything from chicken bones to orange rinds. And while the little pieces they create are biodegradable in time it can’t be done in the short window that a wastewater treatment plant has. As a result we have more expensive treatment processes because people think it is their birthright to grind garbage in their sink instead of putting it in the garbage can.
Pouring oil and fats down the drain ultimately can cost you money with clogged pipes. It also plays havoc with the wastewater treatment process. One way to avoid future cost increases for wastewater treatment is to avoid putting anything but used water and human waste and toilet paper into the system.
Then there are drive-up windows. Study after study show gas and diesel engines — designed to burn efficiently when vehicles are moving — kick out significantly more pollution when they are idling.
There are few drive-up windows where vehicles aren’t idling for at least five minutes so why do we keep adding more and more drive-up windows?
Some may consider the above mentioned as overkill strategies to deal with pollution. That’s fine but we need to keep in mind that while we can’t eliminate manmade pollution entirely there are still significant costs with every action we take or don’t take.
There needs to be a balance. Obtaining a pollution goal at all costs is just as extreme and bad as arguing all pollution regulations are evil and jack up costs for no apparent reason.