The Air District’s Elizabeth Yura speaks at a workshop for the agency’s new Community Health Protection Program. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

Gardeners know that the Bay Area has microclimates, places which are colder or wetter or windier than the vicinity. Microclimates apply to air pollution as well, where pollution sources, wind patterns, and other factors combine to intensify the impacts in some communities. These pockets have remained a problem even as the region’s air quality on the whole has been steadily improving over decades.

Jack Broadbent, CEO of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, recently acknowledged this reality, stating that despite the overall progress, “We know that we have communities that experience high levels of air pollutants.” He was speaking at the January 2018 kickoff meeting for the Air District’s Community Health Protection Program, which will address the problem by looking at air pollution on the neighborhood level, and with the participation of the local residents. Created to implement last year’s Assembly Bill 617 (C. Garcia), the program has an initial goal of identifying and prioritizing communities throughout the region with a “high cumulative exposure burden” by July 31. Highest-ranked communities will be eligible for selection by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for the first round of planning and monitoring assistance under the new state law.

The Air District’s existing Community Air Risk Evaluation (CARE) program had already listed communities particularly affected by cumulative air pollution, but now the agency is moving to add more areas to their list, considering factors such as lower life expectancy, health problems like lung and heart disease, and proximity to heavily trafficked corridors and major industrial pollution sources.

Elizabeth Yura, the Air District’s community health protection officer, explained that in addition to adding communities, “this program moves us to the next step, to actually change things for the communities. It’s a great new toolbox — AB 617 gives us the resources for ground-up exercises, and additional funding for community partnerships.”

Using newer tools — such as the state’s EnviroScreen program, a recently introduced website called the Healthy Places Index, and direct community input from an online “Open Air Forum,” social media, and workshops — the Air District created an initial list of candidate areas which was submitted to CARB at the end of April.

Nominations are not closed, however, and outreach continues through June to make sure that all qualifying communities are included. At workshops around the region and online, residents are being asked to map their homes and nearby pollution sources, suggest measures to improve their air quality, and rank their top choices for AB 617 programs. Hundreds of comments from over 80 cities in the region had already been received by the end of April, with at least seven workshops still to go.

In an example of the kind of comments received by the Air District, Marin resident Bettina Hughes wrote on the Open Air Forum, “In communities like Forest Knolls and Woodacre it is the wood smoke that affects the inhabitants.” The agency is very interested in local impacts like these, which have often been too location-specific for previous planning efforts, but are a perfect fit for the more granular level of AB 617 programs.

The Air District is also reaching out to regional and local organizations interested in partnering with the agency to design plans to clean up air pollution in their neighborhoods. So far, one suggestion for plan design has been to change air pollution permitting, including consideration of cumulative impacts, permit moratoriums in heavily impacted communities, and use of health risk assessments that are being developed under separate Air District regulation.

Many communities on the list for AB 617 participation at the end of July will be eligible to receive funding for technical assistance to aid in completing action and monitoring plans to improve their air quality. Because these are local plans for individual neighborhoods, they may be as specific as improving an Air District regulation or working with local officials on land use ordinances to address a particular facility, or redesigning a traffic pattern to reduce emission build-ups from congested roadways. A community may decide that it will benefit most by gathering data from a new generation of air monitoring equipment able to provide more finely-tuned answers to what is in the air, either at certain times or round-the-clock.

When it submits its community participant choices for the first year, the Air District will also provide the state with a list of communities to be added over a five-year period, according to Yura. She characterized this second list as a “wish list,” because how many communities participate each year is dependent on future funding. “We are figuring out metrics to help with ranking these,” she explained.

Communities across the state may also self-nominate directly to CARB, but Stephanie Tsai of the California Environmental Justice Alliance commented, “The criteria for the air districts are different from those used for self-nomination — they don’t use the same metrics.”

The first cycle of AB 617 local programs will begin with state approval of participating communities in October 2018. In the Bay Area, first-round participants will probably be those most prepared to start the planning process; they may already be CARE communities or have active partner organizations in place, like West Oakland and Richmond. Others communities will be able to apply for Air District grants to do pre-planning and capacity building as they take their place in line for future cycles. These grants are funded from a share of $5 million provided statewide by CARB, plus additional funds from the Air District.

Guidance for action plans and community monitoring programs will be released as the first cycle begins, and by July 2019, one Bay Area community will begin an air monitoring plan and a second will begin to develop an action plan. In October 2019, the Air District will schedule adoption of community action plans developed in the AB 617 process, and then will move to the implementation phase. At the same time, the second round of communities will begin their participation. For each community, the full process is expected to last five years. Yura is pleased that CARB has requested local air districts to provide a discussion of what the program will look like after those first five years.

Yura reported that the Air District is requesting additional funding from the state for staffing and for air quality monitors to support the local communities. She emphasized, “The district is very committed to this program, and I certainly hope we get all the resources we need, but we’ll implement it in some fashion, regardless of resources.”

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.