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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. (Photo: Patch Archive)
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. (Photo: Patch Archive)
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)

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.

Brian Ginna January 02, 2014 at 11:07 AM
Thank you Mr. Borrmann for continuing to expose this nonsense.
mccoymurphy January 02, 2014 at 11:35 AM
Just because this guy does not like the site of one of 30 sensors does not mean that the entire system is rigged. I would venture to say that moving this sensor would not have a profound effect on the overall outcome of the numbers.
Jennifer Tegnerud January 02, 2014 at 11:41 AM
"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. " I think this statement is most telling....
JoAnn January 02, 2014 at 11:43 AM
I have asthma and the smoggy days have a bad effect on my ability to breathe easily. I applaud any effort to stop people from burning wood in their fireplaces, usually because they enjoy looking at a fire. Some of us are just trying to breathe here.
sonia January 02, 2014 at 11:52 AM
I agree with JoAnn.
Kennon Baird January 02, 2014 at 12:02 PM
JoAnn -- You know that the BAAQMD allows trendy restaurants to burn their wood-fired ovens with impunity on "Spare the Air" days, don't you? They also allow thousands of filthy, soot-spewing big rigs to run the highways on those days. Why is that? Because restaurants and big rigs pay the taxes which fund BAAMQD. Citizens' fireplaces and barbeques don't directly provide BAAMQD with cash, so they try to shut them down and fine 'violators'.
Walt Bishop January 02, 2014 at 12:11 PM
Great that taxpayers get involved with their community beyond the usual social issues. This news article exemplifies how a local government agency wastes tax dollars on a public information officer because the executives decided they are to busy to deal with the public on trivial matters. At least this guy in Napa has got me reading the BAAQMD website.
Michael G. Stogner January 02, 2014 at 02:15 PM
One of my objections with this Org. is it is set up to have American's report and turn in their neighbors anonymously.
Nada January 02, 2014 at 03:08 PM
But we have been able to SEE the smog on recent Spare the Air days the air has been gray and often I can't see the hills less than a mile away. I believe that Spare the Air declarations are entirely justified by the air quality, and they also call our attention to what we are doing to our air. However, I do agree with the comment about "wood-fired" restaurants -- the "wood smoke" odor is free advertising for them, but at our expense--filtration should be required so these restaurants are as clean as other businesses.
Karen January 02, 2014 at 05:59 PM
There has been a good point-counterpoint discussion with 56 replies on our Nextdoor Woodside Plaza website re Spare the Air days. Those interested can click on: https://woodsideplazarwc.nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=3219224&thank=6733
Claire Felong January 02, 2014 at 08:53 PM
It's just very frustrating that the only days that most busy Bay Area folks actually have the time to start and enjoy a fire are Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years yet every year for the past 10 years they have been Spare-the-Air days. Don't waste your money on a fireplace - I haven't used mine in over 3 years and I have a modern, clean burning fireplace.
sonia January 03, 2014 at 11:39 AM
Good alternative Claire, that's what we did too.
Chip Krug January 03, 2014 at 04:28 PM
Reading the "2012 Air Monitoring Plan" linked in the article, one finds that the reason a waiver was required for the Napa station is not because it would increase readings, rather that reactions with nitrogen-oxygen compounds would artificially REDUCE ozone readings, not, as the anonymous accuser suggest, increase them. Also, both of the "links" from the accuser as here published are dead. This guys sounds like a disgruntled old man who isn't worried enough about air quality.
Kennon Baird January 03, 2014 at 04:41 PM
"Spare the Air" is symbolic punishment for the masses to justify a needless bureaucracy. Big players scoff and the bureaucracy gets "waivers" to rig the system.
Chip Krug January 03, 2014 at 11:25 PM
Mr. Baird: I suggest you read the materials provided. They suggest that the anonymous accuser in this story is misleading us to exactly the conclusion you state. Anyone who remembers what the air was like here a couple decades ago will disagree that this bureaucracy is not needed.
Concerned Citizen January 06, 2014 at 02:46 PM
I would suggest that the impact on air quality be directed toward the airport. The "spare the air" days seem to coincide with heavy air traffic times! SFO ramps up the air traffic during holidays, and guess who pays in noise and air pollution, while SFO rakes in the BIG bucks? WE DO! AND DOES SFO CARE? HELL NO!

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