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LOIS HENRY: Air pollution "deaths" all over the map

The Bakersfield Californian | Sunday, Nov 14 2010 10:00 AM

Last Updated Sunday, Nov 14 2010 10:00 AM

So, according to the attorney representing a local environmental group, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has been twiddling its thumbs on regulations "when people are dying."

This was in conjunction with a threat by the federal Environmental Protection Agency last week to withhold the state's highway funding if CARB doesn't get off the stick and come up with a plan to rid our air of "deadly" soot, otherwise known as particulate matter, or specifically PM2.5.

If I didn't know better, all this would almost seem like a propaganda run up to CARB's Dec. 16 meeting at which board members will consider amendments to regulations adopted in 2007 and 2008 that strictly curtailed emissions from trucks, buses and heavy construction equipment.

The proposed amendments are intended to ease that regulatory noose somewhat, but CARB staff are adamant some version of the rules are needed to meet federal air standards -- hence the EPA saber rattling.

The rules were so stringent initially that many operators feared they would not be able to afford the required retrofits (from $15,000 up to $80,000 per vehicle depending on model) or equipment replacement mandates.

In the past, CARB's approach was to allow industry to retire older, more polluting equipment, reducing pollution through attrition.

But there was a new urgency behind these rules based on the idea that PM2.5, in particular diesel PM2.5, was killing Californians by the thousands.

Anyone who's read my column for any length of time knows I believe the EPA and CARB have systematically ignored studies that show zero effect of so-called premature deaths from PM2.5 in California and other western states, so there's no real need for these rules at all.

But lets set that aside for a moment and just look at the body count.

Err, make that body counts. 'Cause for a bunch of dead people, these alleged PM2.5 victims bounce around more than a roomful of toddlers on a sugar high.

I was told by CARB staffers that the science is "subtle" and "nuanced." And that the scientists who study this stuff "speak in a complex language" to discern air pollution's impact on the general public.

If there's confusion, I was told, that's a failure of the public information arm of CARB, not the science.

Yeah.

The only subtleties I'm seeing are in how CARB words these reports to elicit the maximum fear factor.

As a primer, you need to know that there is diesel PM2.5 and just all around, or "ambient" PM2.5.

Sometimes CARB researchers separated out the effects of diesel PM2.5 from heavy construction equipment and trucks and buses. And sometimes they lumped the effects of both categories together, explained Linda Smith, chief of CARB's health branch in its research division.

And despite the fact that the reports I reviewed were very specifically supposed to assess the health effects of diesel PM2.5, they occassionally mixed in ambient PM2.5 or even premature deaths from ozone.

So much for scientific exactitude.

OK, so in 2006, CARB estimated 2,400 Californians bought the farm early from exposure to diesel PM2.5 (well, ozone was included too, Smith said. And this report looked at all goods transport, which could include heavy equipment or trucks.)

That was the report used to justify the heavy equipment rules in 2007, by the way.

The 2008 report that spawned the rule for trucks and buses went through a few iterations.

In a May draft version, it said there were 3,900 annual premature deaths due to diesel PM2.5. In the final version, that diesel number was reduced to 3,500.

The change was because they looked at air data from 2000 for the draft and 2005 for the final, according to another CARB staffer.

That explanation seems pretty thin to me. I mean, if the report was done in 2008, surely 2005 air data was available for the May draft version. If not, perhaps 2004? Or even 2003? No?

OK, moving on.

CARB put out a new report on the PM2.5 scourge this past August and said it causes 9,200 premature deaths in California every year. That's overall PM2.5, no break down of diesel PM2.5.

Smith told me CARB would be updating its figures to show that of those 9,200 deaths, about 2,000 a year are due to diesel PM2.5.

She said the changing numbers reflect "new methodology and the latest information."

Given revelations about how CARB has done business in the recent past -- attempting to cover up that the author of those key 2006 and 2008 reports lied about his credentials and then overestimating how much trucks and heavy equipment contribute to air pollution by more than 80 percent -- I'm thinking there's a different reason these premature death numbers vary so widely.

Selective interpretation of the data in order to extract a desired outcome comes to mind.

According to CARB's latest calculations, they believe that from 2010 to 2025 the on-road rule will help keep 3,500 people on this side of the dirt.

That's 233 deaths avoided per year.

And they believe that between 2010 and 2029, their off-road rule will save the lives of 470 people, or 25 per year.

Sooooo, we're saddling California businesses with expensive regulations at a time when they can ill afford it in the name of perhaps, maybe, saving 258 lives a year (if CARB's numbers can be believed). For perspective's sake, about 250,000 Californians die every year of all causes.

That's a pretty expensive maybe.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com