Breathless in Bakersfield: Is the Worst Air Pollution in the US About to Get Worse?


Publication:
Date: 
February 14, 2017
In California’s Central Valley emissions from oil refineries and agriculture make Bakersfield America’s most air-polluted city. Activists fear the Trump administration could undo small but steady improvements.

The bluffs on Panorama Road offer a wide view of the northern half of Bakersfield, which is one of the few major population centres in California’s Central Valley – perhaps the US’ leading agricultural motherlode.

It’s a rare bird’s eye vantage point of this low-slung farm city of roughly 375,000 people, nestled in a bowl created by the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east and part of the California Coast Ranges to the west. On a clear day, the state’s dominant topographical features put the landscape, and one’s place in it, in sobering perspective.

But clear days don’t happen all that often in Bakersfield. Emissions from agriculture, industry, rail freight and road traffic together create one of the country’s worst concentrations of air pollution – a condition exacerbated by geographic and climatic conditions that trap dry, dirty air over this southern section of Central Valley like the lid over a pot.

Oil fields make up most of the view from the top of the bluffs, and the scent of petroleum is often detectable around the city. Dairies populated by hundreds of thousands of cows are scattered throughout the region, and their smell, too, is hard to miss. Massive warehouses and distribution centres on the outskirts of town bring in diesel trucks day and night from Interstate 5, the major north-south route that runs from Canada to Mexico (Los Angeles is about 100 miles to the south). Freight trains hauling oil rumble through the city, and its many refineries billow smoke into the air.

Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County are the unlucky nexus of this pollution. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2016 report found the city’s air to be the worst in the United States for short-term and year-round particle pollution, and the second worst for ozone pollution. ...