Capitol Alert

Fact check: Does California have the nation’s ‘worst’ air quality?

In a letter to California’s Air Resources Board, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler this week accused the Golden State of having the worst air quality in the nation.

Democrats rebuffed Wheeler, mostly because Wheeler in the letter also threatened to withhold federal highway funding from the state in an ongoing dispute over whether California can set its own air quality standards.

But both parties should be able to agree on Wheeler’s argument that California has poor air quality. In fact, that air quality is one reason the Nixon administration in 1970 granted California a waiver that allowed the state to set stricter air quality regulations than the rest of the country.

California experiences bad air quality for three significant reasons, according to the Air Resources Board.

It has a lot of people, almost 40 million of them, who can generate pollution in their daily lives. Its residents have about 25 million registered cars, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

California’s rugged topography traps pollutants in the skies above populous cities. The Sierra Nevada, for instance, can keep pollutants sitting over Central Valley communities like Fresno and Bakersfield.

That warm climate that Californians love also plays a role in the state’s pollution problem, generating ground-level ozone that can hurt your lungs.

Now, more than 50 years after California started establishing air quality regulations, the Trump administration is correct: Several Golden State cities are still home to the worst air quality in the country.

The American Lung Association maintains a list of cities with the worst air quality, rating the worst 25 cities in three categories: by ozone, by year-round particle pollution and by short-term particle pollution.

California cities took top marks in its 2019 report for the worst air in all three categories.

The top five cities with worst air quality by ozone:

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach
  2. Visalia
  3. Bakersfield
  4. Fresno-Madera-Hanford
  5. Sacramento-Roseville

The top five cities with worst air quality by year-round particle pollution:

  1. Fresno-Madera-Hanford
  2. Bakersfield
  3. Fairbanks, Alaska
  4. Visalia
  5. Los Angeles-Long Beach

The top five cities with worst air quality by short-term particle pollution:

  1. Bakersfield
  2. Fresno-Madera-Hanford
  3. Fairbanks, Alaska
  4. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland
  5. Missoula, Montana
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