This was written by Alex Breitler for Recordnet.com:
In the San Joaquin Valley, “back to school” means books, alarm clocks and air pollution. Officials say there’s a definite connection between the start of the school year and levels of pollution. In particular, they say, drivers who idle their vehicles while waiting to pick up children after school are partly to blame for the Valley’s failure to meet an ozone-pollution standard. And that failure is costing us. If you drive a car in the Valley, you’re paying a portion of an annual $29 million penalty.
The good news is the Valley may finally be close to shedding that burden, if pollution levels stay down for the rest of August and into September and October. Even so, air regulators want to start a longer-term conversation with school officials on ways to decrease all of that driving and idling. “It’s a huge issue,” said Jaime Holt, spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “This fall we’re going to start trying to get meetings with superintendents, (school) districts and boards to begin talking to them about this issue and their feelings about it.” Among the strategies air quality officials have discussed:
- Asking schools to delay the start of the school year until ozone levels begin to decline, or to stagger release times at the end of the day so that not everyone is driving at once;
- Putting up “no-idling” signs in front of schools;
- Providing financial incentives for schools to build shade structures to encourage drivers to leave their cars while waiting for students;
- A public information campaign with media messages and pamphlets.
An air district staff report from June also discusses the possibility of requiring schools to adopt one or more of those measures, but Holt said this week that regulations are not yet on the table. “We’re not there at all,” she said. She said meetings will be held with schools over the next year.
Stockton Unified spokeswoman Dianne Barth said Friday that the district already has staggered release times, to facilitate bus transportation. And some students walk to neighborhood schools. “What we don’t have are extra funds” for new programs, she said. Holt said the issue comes down to education. The district says that idling a car for four minutes produces the same amount of pollution as driving one mile, and that idling a car for longer than 10 seconds burns more gas than cutting the engine and restarting.
The district also says 43 percent of Valley children who are driven to school in private vehicles live within one mile of that school. That suggests there is potential to encourage more walking, said Holt. She acknowledged safety concerns – “It’s a different world” than it used to be, she said – but perhaps parents could organize and lead walking groups.
Not to be forgotten are the health impacts of pollution, which can be especially severe for children. They breathe more air for their body weight than adults, and their short stature places them closer to vehicle tailpipes.
For the moment, however, all eyes are on whether the Valley can finally beat that $29 million penalty, which is the result of a federal standard that has actually been revoked but for which penalties can still be applied. To meet the standard, air quality stations from Stockton to Bakersfield can exceed it no more than three times over a period of three years. One station in southwest Fresno topped the standard three times in 2011 and once again in 2012, but air quality officials say that most recent violation was caused by a wildfire and shouldn’t count as a violation. If the Environmental Protection Agency agrees, and ozone levels stay low the rest of this summer, the standard would finally be met, Holt said. The district board could then choose to remove the penalty, which Valley drivers pay in the form of an annual $12 DMV surcharge.
Officials have called an “Air Alert” starting today, and urged the public to drive less. “We just want people to understand we are really close (to meeting the standard), and really need them to change their behavior,” Holt said.