At Fresno fuel economy hearing, people demand cleaner air

More than a week later, what lingers in the memory isn’t the despair, but the will to fight.

I went to Fresno, where the first of three national hearings on the Trump administration’s proposed fuel economy standards for 2021-26 was held. More than 130 people read testimony before members of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the two federal agencies charged with crafting the standards.

The administration is seeking to freeze in place the progress of the standards, so that after model year 2020 all cars sold in the United States won’t have to meet the kind of ambitious targets they would have under the previous administration’s plan.

All but two speakers vigorously opposed the administration’s proposal, and the most commonly cited reason was air quality: Person after person talked about how poor air quality in many parts of California has devastated their health, or that of their children.

The choice of Fresno as the venue for the hearing (the others, on successive days, were held in Dearborn, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) provided the opportunity for many citizens, physicians and activists to point out that the city, and the San Joaquin Valley surrounding it, consistently harbors some of the dirtiest air in the country: According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2018 report, Fresno/Madera ranks fifth-worst for year-round particle pollution (Visalia, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles are 2nd through 4th).

“You came to the right place to have this hearing,” said Dr. Don Gaede, an internist at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno.

Dr. Don Gaede

Elderly residents talked of wearing masks when they go outside, and persistent trips to the ER for their children. A father, Ruben Aronin, spoke of his son Brendan, 11, who has asthma. The family lives in Los Angeles, which recently endured 87 straight days of smog at higher than acceptable levels, the longest such stretch in two decades. He told the government officials how Brendan had been required to run a mile in his 7th grade P.E. class. He had to stop six times to take a draw from his inhaler, but he did it.

“It was a struggle,” Aronin told me later. “Throughout the run, he had to medicate, to give him the lung capacity. But he was able to do that, so that was terrific and encouraging.”

Aronin is vice president of outreach and communications at Better World Group, Inc., an environmental and policy consulting firm based in L.A. Among its priorities are to convince California to put more zero-emissions vehicles on the road.

“These are the moments where I feel guilty as hell for raising a kid in Los Angeles,” he added. “They say it’s like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day in the L.A Basin, and I feel like I’m not doing him any favors by being here. … I hope that his kids have a cleaner world, a cleaner air basin to live in, and that we don’t have to see so many kids suffering this way.”

More speakers took their turn at the table, in groups of 2-6, filling the ballroom that sits in the penthouse of the Grand 1401 Hotel in downtown Fresno. The parade of storytellers continued, and many speakers elicited cheers with their rousing speeches.

About 3 p.m., roughly 5 hours in, it was my turn to be heard. After scribbling notes on my prepared remarks and deleting passages right up until the last second. Here’s what I said:

I blew past my 3-minute allotment by about 30 seconds, and a guy near the “shot clock” started waving a red card at me, as if I’d committed a soccer foul. But I didn’t care. This was too important. I got my point across. The representatives from NHTSA and EPA, at the table across from me, nodded but showed no expression.

That was it: Democracy in action. It was a small contribution to the national debate on a crucial issue. But hopefully it makes a difference.

The powers that be do listen. And when we speak in a unified, loud voice, as we did on this issue across the three days, that voice becomes louder and much more difficult to ignore.


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