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The worst air in the US? It's not in L.A.

Pollution levels and topography have helped make smog 'a way of life' in Bakersfield, Calif.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / April 30, 2009

Traffic moves along Oswell Street in Bakersfield, Calif. The city's smoggy skyline is barely visible to the south.

Casey Christie/The Californian/NEWSCOM/FILE

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Bakersfield, Calif.

At Uricchio’s Trattoria, a street café on 17th Street, the smell of sizzling garlic wafts into the air tinged lightly with the aroma of … exhaust. And despite the perfect blue sky, the view of the mountains surrounding this Central Valley city is obscured by a ruddy haze.

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As Lois and Jill Moreland sip coffee and spear salad greens, they comment on the placement of a national story on smog in the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. “It only made the cover of the B-section,” says Lois.

Bakersfield has moved into first place as the city with the most fine particulate pollution, according to report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association, which annually ranks America’s cities with the unhealthiest air. Last year, the city was third behind Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

For the third year in a row, Bakersfield ranks as the nation’s second smoggiest city. It comes in just behind Los Angeles in the cities most polluted by ozone, the gas that forms a major component of smog.

Local TV has already broadcast the story and national reporters have shown up, but the Moreland sisters seem unfazed. “Smog is a way of life here,” says Jill.

It’s been more than a decade since the first reports about the growing pollution threatening America’s most diverse and productive farm counties here in the Central Valley. The reasons for the pollution are manifold, including dust from tractors and mist from fertilizers and pesticides that grow half the nation’s produce.

But the topography and meteorological conditions make matters worse – and make the problem hard to solve. The city is boxed in on three sides by mountains. Inversion layers – which act like a lid on the air, holding the pollution close to the ground – are present in both winter and summer, and there is little or no wind to take the pollution elsewhere.

Kern County, in which Bakersfield is situated, and also ranks as the worst county in average annual particulate pollution, has made some efforts to reduce the pollution.

According to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the county has reduced stationary sources of pollution by 80 percent since 1980, through measures including regulations on oil processing and, in 2003, restrictions on wood fires. Farming regulations that reduced both the number of harvesting machines and the number of trips through the field have also helped.