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'Whistleblower' Claims Spare-the-Air Days are Rigged

The man says he is a former employee of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the agency that calls the Spare-the-Air Alerts.

Fort Cronkhite in Sausalito is the only coastal location in the Bay Area chosen as an air toxics monitoring site, representative of ambient levels of toxics compounds transported into the Bay Area. Credit: wikimedia commons
Fort Cronkhite in Sausalito is the only coastal location in the Bay Area chosen as an air toxics monitoring site, representative of ambient levels of toxics compounds transported into the Bay Area. Credit: wikimedia commons
By Keri Brenner

The Bay Area endured a record-setting number of consecutive Spare-the-Air winter burn bans in December. One man says he's tired of the "smoking gun." 

According to the man, who lives in north Napa, the "smoking gun" is the "dishonesty" of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the agency that generates the Spare-the-Air Alerts in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area.

"The North Bay is frequently the reason we have Spare-the-Air days," says the man, who asked that his name not be used because he said he is a former employee of the BAAQMD and he doesn't "want to be identified as the whistleblower."

"That is because their Napa sensor is literally on top of a Mexican bakery, next to a nail salon and another bakery, and just a few feet downwind from a BBQ restaurant," the Napa man says. "This is intentional so that they can claim that the air in Napa is bad. It isn't."

Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the BAAQMD, says the Napa sensor -- at 2552 Jefferson St. -- is one of 30 sensors in the Bay Area that are chosen according to strict U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The Bay Area agency has no agenda of its own in choosing the sites, he said.

"We can't just site it where we want," Borrmann said. "We have to be in compliance with the U.S. EPA standards that are set on a national basis."

He said anyone may review the Napa sensor specifications on Page 77 of the agency's report, "2012 Air Monitoring Plan."   

"The whole idea is to get a reading of the expression of ambient air quality for the air throughout the Bay Area," Borrmann said. "It gives us a picture of the region -- it's not done on a block-by-block basis." 

Napa was chosen to represent the Napa County region because it is the largest city, the report says. The Jefferson Street site was chosen because it is in the "middle" of various types of measures -- a mix of residential and commercial uses, but not close to an industrial source, for example.

But the Napa self-styled whistleblower said he objects to the Jefferson Street sensor site, saying that the monitoring locations are supposed to be in residential areas. He claims the BAAQMD applied for and received a waiver to site the sensor in a commercial area.

"Proof: please see page 265 and beyond of the Air District's document," the man said, offering this link.

"There is no tourist traffic here--it is all Napa inhabitants," he said.  "It is clear that this air-monitoring site provides intentionally incorrect data with the sole purpose of stating that air in Napa County is unhealthful, which it is not."

On the Peninsula, there are no sensors between the lone San Francisco sensor and Redwood City where there are three, two of which are practically on top of one another, and none are in residential areas. (Zoom in on the map above) Three are sited at airports--San Carlos, Palo Alto and down in San Jose, at Reid Hillview. The other San Jose señor is surrounded by restaurants, not homes.

Other allegations offered by the Napa man are that the BAAQMD lowered its particulate matter threshold recently so that it could issue more Spare-the-Air alerts, and that the whole process was a way to ensure job security and cost-of-living-increases for the air district staff. 

Borrmann said the threshold levels are standard nationally: Air quality needs to stay below 35 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter that measures 2.5 microns or larger, according to the EPA. The BAAQMD issues the alerts when staff determine the region is in danger of exceeding that amount.

"We call it when we get to a certain level (of particulates)," Borrmann said. "We want to avoid exceeding the EPA's standard."

As to the monetary allegations, Borrmann said they were baseless.

"I don't see how calling a Spare-the-Air Day puts money in your pocket," he said.

The Napa man also claims the BAAQMD "is using Bay Area money to sponsor global climate change initiatives that are completely outside of their purview," he said.  

"They are using Bay Area money for what should be, at best, a state issue but more likely a federal issue," he added.  

"Not only did they create an entirely new division to study global climate change, they announced this direction over the summer," he said, offering a link to the press release which can be viewed here.

According to Borrmann, the press release quoted above, dated Nov. 6, is simply a statement of goals for improving air quality in the region -- and is not a plan to "create an entirely new division to study global climate change," as the Napa man alleges.

"We have a lot of goals," Borrmann said. "They are all outlined in the Clean Air Plan."

Borrmann said the Napa man -- or anyone else who needs more details on the how the Napa sensor site was chosen -- is welcome to contact him at rborrmann@baaqmd.gov.
Mark howard January 03, 2014 at 09:35 PM
Finally---someone who makes cogent points about the significant increase in "spare the air" days. I thank the Napa man for speaking up. The air quality board is using some different metrics than last year to make their decisions. There has been a change in the evaluation process. Three years ago I put in a fireplace insert so I could use the fireplace to overcome high PG&E bills during winter. The fireplace insert has insulation within the chimney and a filter at the top of the chimney thereby significantly reducing pollutants. I don't use the fireplace to sit next to an have a cocktail. I use it to save energy costs. Now for the spare the air day-----something has changed with the air quality board decision process and this Board's decisions should be evaluated. Thanks for the article--people need to speak up.

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