Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Real Choke Point

by Bob Craft, Benicia, CA
originally posted to Benicia Herald, July, 2008

Full disclosure up front. I am not a scientist or air quality expert – only an interested lay observer.

The recent spate of wild fires that so affected Benicia’s air quality in mid to late June was very instructive. Raw data, if I am interpreting it correctly, from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District – the folks that issue the bad air alerts – shows that for much of the time from 14-29 June, Benicia had the worst air in the entire bay area as far as fine particulate matter is concerned (the stuff coming at us from the fires). This is a real health issue matter and should be of concern to everyone.

During this heavily polluted period, this particulate matter (fine grain soot if you will) was measured in Benica, Napa and Vallejo along with five other places in the bay area. Based on the maximum concentrations reported, one can conclude that much of the bad stuff, perhaps mostly from the Napa – Solano fire – north of Green Valley, was funneled directly to Benicia by the wind currents and straight into our lungs if we needed to be outside. As noted, the maximum readings here were elevated well above normal during most of the last half of June, but from 23-25 June were incredibly high. On two of those dates, Benicia measured almost double that of Vallejo and a third more on the other date. As compared to Napa, local readings were even more dramatic.

Apart from the immediate health implications, we should be concerned. As near as I can tell, we had this kind of specific data on a timely basis only because the Air Quality District has a temporary monitoring facility in Benicia. Were it not for this facility, I guess we would have known how bad the situation actually was only from our eyes and lungs and general area alerts. Certainly data from the permanent facilities at Vallejo, Napa and elsewhere would not have come close to measuring the real severity of the situation in Benicia. Measurements from the other locations did show a general problem, but not that Benicia was apparently in its worst pollution storm in months and perhaps ever. We should be concerned that the detailed and location specific data we need for health warning and exposure prevention purposes was likely only available to us because a temporary facility is in our area –one that is in place for an entirely different reason.

Another reason to be concerned is that all of the environmental studies for Benicia with which I am familiar have used data collected by the permanent monitoring station in Vallejo to establish our air quality baseline. To this layman, the recent situation clearly shows that this is not an accurate way to establish such a baseline. In routine periods, i.e. where there are no immediate health risks and air quality is normal, Vallejo measurements may be more or less representative. But it is in non-routine periods such as the recent June activity – especially that of 23-25 June – that we need Benicia specific data to allow us to characterize our immediate environment. This is, after all, the one that affects us most directly, not Vallejo’s.

If I am interpreting the data correctly, the message here is that while we would have known we had a problem in June without the temporary monitoring station, its real severity would not have been documented. Without such a resident capability, we will not know in the future. In June, we could see the problem. The next time we may not be able to do so. Not all airborne pollutants are so obvious.

Our city leaders should treat this with urgency and do everything in their power to assure the Air District’s temporary facility remains in place until it is replaced by a permanent one. Our location as an apparent wind current funnel as exhibited by the June activity and situation with respect to the freeways seem proof enough we need a permanent real time monitoring station in Benicia that measures all harmful pollutants. For health and safety reasons, our citizens deserve no less.