In late November, an inspector with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District cruised through a neighborhood of stately homes north of Turner Road.
It was a Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., and the inspector noted that smoke was issuing from the chimney of a home at the corner of Junewood Drive. As that day in November was an official "no-burn" day, the inspector then mailed off a "notice of violation" that the homeowner had broken air regulations by having a fire and was therefore required to pay a $50 fine.
Three months later, Adam Dados, who lives in that home on Junewood Drive, was dismayed and not just a little angry to learn from a reporter that the district had issued such a violation.
On Friday, Dados said in no uncertain terms where the inspectors could go and what they could do to themselves.
"I'll spend $500 to fight them in court before I pay them $50," Dados said. "All I can tell the air district is go file a charge with the DA. I want to see my accuser in court."
Low-key but growing agency
Dados is one of roughly 400 residents cited during the wood burning season, which ends today. The citations are issued by inspectors from the pollution district. It's a somewhat low-profile agency playing an increasingly larger - some say more intrusive - role in the lives of San Joaquin Valley residents. It is the air pollution district that tells people which days they can or cannot have a fire in their fireplace. It is the district that issues citations, and the district that divvies up millions in incentives to clean up the air.
Air district by the numbers2008-09 district budget: $137,037,900
District population: 3,834,766*
Sources: 2008-09 San Joaquin Valley Air Control District budget, U.S. Census
How do they determine a 'no-burn' day?Every day, forecasters with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District analyze local weather patterns. Factors that can influence air quality can include high pressure systems and how the air is circulating at ground level.
If the forecast calls for conditions that could result in a specific level of pollution or "particulate matter" per cubic meter, the district will declare a "no-burn" day.
The San Joaquin Valley can have some of the worst air conditions in the country because of its geography. Air moves in from the coastal regions but hits the Sierra Nevada and becomes trapped in the Valley. During the summer, residents in the Valley endured weeks of hazy, smoky air from hundreds of forest fires. Even after some fires were extinguished, Lodi and numerous other cities had to endure the haze because of the weather.
These weather patterns that hold the Valley air in place are what makes fireplaces so detrimental to air quality. The particulate matter emitted from fireplaces is similar to the haze that hung in the air this past summer.
Questions on air qualitySan Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas represents the county on the 15-member governing board that oversees the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Ornellas replaced former supervisor Jack Sieglock on the board and is currently starting his third year of service on the board.
Q: What's the biggest contributing factor to poor air quality?
A: We deal with stationary sources (factories, farms and houses), but the biggest factor is mobile; that's cars and trucks that have the biggest impact on air quality. But we deal with stationary and it's the smallest piece of the puzzle, and it puts a great about of pressure on stationary. The biggest factor is mobile, so if we could get the air clear on that side it would be a great help to us.
Q: Does the San Joaquin Valley get stuck with the Bay Area's air pollution?
A: Not all of it, but a pretty good portion does flow into here. They deny it, but it's true. … I remember in August when they were having the Napa fires you could see this plume of smoke just heading from Napa into the San Joaquin Valley.
Q: What do you say to people who argue a government agency shouldn't have any business regulating when they can or can not have a fire in their fireplace?
A: That, again, is one of the issues that troubles me. When we're telling people, yes, they can have a fire in the fireplace, or no you can't. … (when) we as a government entity begin to poke our nose into the private lives of people. … but I understand how it's helpful on bad air quality days that we can encourage people in San Joaquin County not to burn. It has a positive impact on air quality. It's hard for me, but I understand it.
And district officials stress that Valley air, some of the worst in the nation, needs to get cleaned up.
During the winter, they say, smoke from wood fires is one of the leading sources of air pollutants.
Anthony Presto, a spokesman for the district, said smoke inhalation causes heart disease and can aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma. The smoke from fires spreads "particulate matter" into the air. These particles are so small they can actually enter the blood stream through the lungs, which is why it's so detrimental to heart health.
The district is charged with setting and enforcing regulations set by the state and federal government for sources of air pollution. These sources include factories, farms and homes.
"Studies have shown that our wintertime air quality has a great deal to do with residential wood burning," Presto said.
The district's enforcement season for wood burning begins in November. During this past season, there were a total of 409 violations in the eight-county district during the four-month period, which saw an average of 9 no-burn days per month.
In San Joaquin County, a total of 27 people received violations and there were 21 no-burn days.
In Lodi, two homeowners received violations for having a fire on the wrong day. Dados was one, though he was not aware of the violation before Friday because the notice had been sent to his sister, Angie Melas.
She, too, questioned the district's action.
"I don't believe it. You know, come on," she said before adding there are far more serious causes of air pollution than residential chimneys.
The other violation went to a Lodi woman who owns a rental home on El Dorado Avenue in Lodi. The violation occurred at the rental, but the ticket was issued to the property owner. The woman did not reply to a request for comment.
'There is no knocking on doors'
The district has three 1-800 numbers for complaints in all of its eight counties. Tipsters are kept anonymous and, as the district's inspectors never contact homeowners directly, the first time a homeowner learns of a violation is through the mail.
Presto said that on no-burn days, district inspectors will respond to complaints, and if they find a home with a smoky chimney, they'll write up a violation.
"There is no knocking on doors; we don't approach anybody," Presto said.
A second violation has a $150 fine, and a third fine - and any after that - costs $1,000.
"In general, residents have been very cooperative with the rule," Presto said.
The district has gone to great lengths to publicize its no-burn restrictions, he said, with commercials, press releases and a Web site and toll-free number to find out if a wood fire is permitted.
If a homeowner has no other means to heat their home aside from a fireplace, they can seek a one-year exemption if they receive a violation notice.
Presto contends that the wood-burning regulations have been successful. He said several studies have confirmed cutting air pollution improves public health and a recent study found that air pollution laws have saved hundreds of lives.
Progress against pollution
The district has been successful in meeting federal standards for the amount of particulate matter that's smaller than 10 microns (a micron is one millionth of a meter), and so it is now trying to conform to tighter standards for even smaller particulate matter.
That's why district residents weren't able to have as many fires this winter.
"The standard is beginning to become much harder to meet," Presto said.
The district stretches from San Joaquin County to Kern County and is comprised of northern, central and southern regions with district offices in Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield. It has a budget of $137 million, which is nearly double that of last year. About $50 million of that funding increase comes through Proposition 1B, which was passed in 2006 and aims to reduce the amount of emissions from the state's transportation network. The district employs 310 people and spends about $27 million a year in salaries and benefits, according to district budget information.
More than $100 million of the district's total budget is allocated to "non-operating appropriations," most of which are incentive programs to reduce air pollution. These include the Proposition 1B funds as well as other programs like the Carl Moyer Heavy Duty Truck Fleet Modernization Program, which had more than $10.4 million this year to defray the cost for truckers to upgrade old diesel engines to new, cleaner models.
Despite the district's incentives, some industry leaders say it has been more of a burden than a blessing.
"The air quality in this state has improved some, but what have we really done? We've moved every factory with a smokestack to China," said Galt resident and dairyman Case Van Steyn.
Van Steyn, who serves on the board of directors for Dairy Farmers of America and the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, said that added regulations on farmers and businesses in the Central Valley have caused them to close up shop or outsource operations elsewhere.
Air pollution is a touchy subject for dairymen, who have long argued that their cows don't emit the levels of methane and other gases that are to blame for the Valley's poor air quality.
Van Steyn, however, also argues that the costly equipment upgrades, like having to buy a new truck to replace one that doesn't meet emission standards mandated by the air district, prevent companies from investing in the state's economy.
"Everybody is for clean air and clean water. Who's opposed to that?" Van Steyn said. "Everybody would like clean air, but I don't want to go broke over the concept."
San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas is the county's representative on the district's 15-member governing board. Ornellas is a dairyman himself; the Ornellas family has been running its Tracy dairy since the 1930s.
As a member of the district's board, Ornellas says he understands the need for regulations to ensure clean air. But as a farmer, he also can relate to the businessman who feels overwhelmed by all the various laws.
Ornellas said that the hardest part about his post is striking the right balance between protecting air quality and protecting industry.
"You have sympathy for the Valley resident who suffers from asthma and other air quality health issues, and you sympathize - or I sympathize - with the businesses that have the federal and state and Valley regulations that are just piled and piled and piled on them and make it very hard for them to do business here in the Valley," he said. "You have some people who literally come before you in tears because of the regulations, and then you have some people who come before you who want more and stricter regulations."
That balance, at least for Ornellas, could be harder to achieve in the future.
"I would say from what I see … the head of EPA who the new president has appointed and the direction I see the fed government going as far as the environment, I have got to believe the answer is yes," he said when asked if he foresees even stricter air regulations. "I'm not advocating it, but I have to say yes."