Air alert: Clean air, clean air is (not) everywhere

Environment California released a ranking of the nation's smoggiest cities, and Fresno made No. 5.

Not No. 1. And that's important because as they say in sports, "If you ain't No. 1 you ain't nothin'." Or something like that. So I can handle it. Then again, I'm not really into sports. I write this thinking about a song in "Hair," not that there's anything wrong with that.

This week Fresno received an official Air Alert warning from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The air? Unhealthy.

When I got off the plane from Seattle (by way of creepy Gate 44 at LAX, but that's a different story), the air tasted hot and a little like dirt. I felt vindicated when I read Fresno Bee reporter Mark Grossi's story soon after. I had helped drive my son to college at Seattle University on Capital Hill.

"Heat and dirty air Tuesday triggered the first violations of an expensive ozone standard this summer in the Valley – and the problems could continue," Grossi wrote.

Smog around here is as common as heat. We live with it. We revel in days when we can catch a clear glimpse of the magnificent Sierra. And we suffer health-related maladies because of it.

This particular rant is a result of my suffering a sore throat, constant sneezing and eyes that feel like sandpaper. And no, this is not the result of me trying to replicate the fun the guys had on the "Hangover II."

That would be easy to fix. Just stay away from Zach Galifianakis, wolf pack of one.

Solving this problem will take a heck of a lot more work. And I'm not going to say stop driving the car. That's hardly practical. I love driving my car. In fact, I was just listening to the song "Brand New Car" from the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge album and thinking how awesome it was.

But I digress. I just finished a post on all the amazing things happening in the clean energy realm. I even read through GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman's jobs plan to sleuth out his ideas on clean energy. I like the guy. He's into pegging energy to national security and not a big fan of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But that's OK. He says he wants federal taxes to be "flatter, fairer, simpler and more conducive to growth." Seriously, wouldn't that be nice?

Personally, I like the Clean Air Act. President Nixon was a visionary in that respect. I want clean air. I want a lot of things.

And we can have it all. At least that's what EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"In contrast to doomsday predictions, history has shown, again and again, that we can clean up pollution, create jobs, and grow our economy all at the same time," she says.

Sounds good to me. Now where's that inhaler?

Photo: Courtesy Sarah Leen, National Geographic

Something's wrong when smog is considered normal

On the Today Show this morning, the view from atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza showed a hazy Manhattan skyline that even obscured the new tower going up at Ground Zero.

Yet, the smog didn't get a comment from Matt Lauer, who was describing the broadcast scene. We're too used to it.

Grimy air is as common as two cars per household, as common as 15 HDPE bags per visit to the grocery store and as common as a reference to the river of garbage on a Cartoon Network show.

Something's wrong here.

Politics as usual

Complacency has become part of the American electorate. Decent jobs are disappearing faster than water from a bucket with a hole. President Obama's got a plan. Congress says it's open to compromise, but does anybody think anything will really be accomplished in the next two years?

Michele Bachmann does appear to have learned to phrase her responses to questions from "mainstream" media in a way that makes her sound like she's at least thinking about moving forward on the economy. And John Boehner and Rick Perry have issued statements, while not very specific, do at least sound good. (I love Perry's catch phrase "Together we can get America working again." Heck yes!)

Issuing the challenge

All in all, I prefer the statement by Craig Lewis, executive director of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Clean Coalition, who had this to say about clean energy in a recent email: "Our success will bring unparalleled economic, environmental, and security benefits that are achievable through a sustained and concerted effort to implement intelligent energy policies."

He's talking about simple stuff, really. But it's important, especially the jobs component, and transcends traditional political divides. I believe Lewis issued a simple challenge. Something like, "Come on people. Let's make it work."

I find it amazing anybody (seriously) would oppose such a concept. After all, we don't have any alternatives. That skyline is our skyline. Those who can afford a New York City penthouse apartment can see murky air better than most.

Some oppose green

Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, says we appear to be on cusp of making it work but he believes the green energy/clean energy movement is under assault.

"Our nation is poised to enter an era where we can take it for granted that protecting public health and providing stable and sustainable jobs are one and the same. The writing's on the wall," he writes on Huffington Post.

But Brune says that's exactly why Big Oil sees a threat to its economic domination and has turned attention and resources to trying to stymie the clean economy.

I don't doubt it. There are significant deposits of "alternative" fossil fuels made more economically viable by sustained high crude oil prices. And they're domestic, or at least on this continent. Unfortunately, these deposits are more difficult to extract and could make the planet look like detritus left by Galactus. (He devours worlds and is an arch foe of the Fantastic Four. This is one of those insider Marvel Comics references. I like him because he created the Silver Surfer.)

Room for everybody

Clean energy offers a big band wagon. Oil (aka energy) companies certainly could diversify. There is likely a significant percentage of investors who prefer not to foul their nests. Why else build wealth if not for those who inherit, right? And progeny need a place to live.

The Brookings Institution's recent report "Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment" says that the clean economy employs 2.7 million workers across a vast group of industries and that various cleantech sectors have shown explosive growth.

We need more such growth.

The question

It all comes down to this: Can clean energy compete? I believe the answer is yes, even without calculating in all the ruination of pollution and degradation to the environment.

However, our best and brightest must take on the challenge. And win.

We don't have much time.

Photo: Lower Manhattan skyline courtesy

Breathe deep, our polluted air could use a filter

Air quality in the San Joaquin Valley regularly registers in the unhealthy range.

I'm quite familiar with this because I run every day. When at about 2 or 3 miles it feels like somebody's punched me in the throat and chest (and I feel decent otherwise), I know it's a bad air day.

Air quality is just an indicator, a very noticeable one, that's saying, "Hey, chill on the pollution." We're topping off on bad ozone, the colorless gas that forms near the ground when the emissions of cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries and chemical plants react chemically in sunlight. There's also an increasing load of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particle pollution.

Runner's cough

At first, I thought I was just getting old. I'm 50. But then I started asking around. No, runners say, you feel bad probably because of the air. This is Fresno, they say, where the nearby majestic Sierra are often masked by haze of murky gray/white/brown.

News reports here never fail to record the ups and downs of the color-coded Air Quality Index. Moderate means it will be a good day. But we take the next level, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, in stride and only occasionally rebel when we're told it reaches the next level of just plain Unhealthy.

Giving doctors more business

We're tough. Sure. Our air gives our kids asthma and fills doctors' offices with a raft of health maladies. Both my strapping sons have asthma. My 18-year-old, Calvin, finally was tested and was determined to have horrible allergies to just about everything carried in the air and a nasty case of asthma.

He hadn't been able to run more than maybe 2 miles without collapsing. I thought, "What a wuss." I was wrong. Not the first time. With medication he's now powering through easy sub 7-minute miles at 95 degrees with ease. I should have known. This kid has no body fat, was a gymnast, then a diver when he got too big for the constant flips.

But drugs aren't really a solution. I developed asthma too since my move here, and taking prescription drugs just makes me feel like I'm deteriorating.

Asthma on the rise

In an interview with, Paul Epstein, a doctor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Changing Planet, Changing Health," said that asthma and allergies are on the rise. The reason: increasing CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Epstein said cases of asthma in the United States have more than doubled since 1980.

And the increased harshness of the seasons -- hotter in the summer, colder in the winter -- are driving other problems like more weeds and bugs. Wonderful stuff.

All in all, it's not altogether encouraging. But I'm an optimistic guy; sometimes my wife calls it unrealistic.

Solutions are available

There is a solution to all this. The mantra reduce, reuse, recycle is just a start. We've got more in the tool box. Energy efficiency measures are now pretty readily available to just about anyone. I'm now replacing all my halogen lighting fixtures when they blow out with the miserly LED bulbs. They're more expensive but they use way less electricity.

Solar technology is making significant advances in affordability and efficiency and soon may be reasonable enough for slow adopters like me to say, "OK, what the heck?" I'm personally intrigued by the possibility of super efficient solar panels on the roof of an electric vehicle rendering it permanently mobile until the sun goes down. Then battery power would offer 100-mile range.

Yet, I'm old school. I still believe we have an inescapable future dependent upon burning stuff. That alliance will continue I'm told, whether I like it or not. I still get a charge out of starting a blazing fire in a wood stove or camp site, good smokey flames get rid of bugs. And petroleum has its benefits. For instance, I love my cars.

However, I'd love to break the death grip the Middle East has on our economy, our transportation network and our elected officials. Efficiencies could lessen that and alternatives like biofuels and even natural gas give us options.

Ringing the bell

While the debate over our fuel/alternative fuel mix is important, the fact is we as a society still need to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. That little thing called climate change keeps ringing the bell. My hacking cough reminds me that clean air would be a good thing.

Funny how I never thought how good I had it as a kid. Either beachcombing on Kodiak Island or clamboring over ancient gold mining equipment in Ester, Alaska, the clean air never registered.

I took it for granted. Now I can't.